April 7, 2013
A recently reported research study is titled Fears, constraints and contracts: the democratic reality for New Zealand’s community and voluntary sector. The results are hard-hitting, lifting a lid on current experience for organisations whose voice has been largely silenced by the political shift over the past forty years, to neo-liberal economics and the out-sourcing of social services to the community sector.
The survey covers both NGO and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, all fields of social service provision, and both large national organisations and small community groups with no paid staff and no external funding. The promise of confidentiality and privacy allowed a freedom to respond to questions in an open and direct way. The results will not be surprising to those of us engaged in the community and voluntary sector, but the tenor and directness of the quoted statements leave us in no doubt of a depth of disappointment and frustration behind the words. For example (p 57):
NGOs play a unique and crucial role in New Zealand. Their contribution to political decision-making in NZ is currently undervalued and under-utilised. They are under-resourced and therefore undermined. (Emphasis added)
Small wonder these words deserved underscoring.
The report deserves to be read in full, to get the picture of how we have come to this pretty pass, and to note the references to earlier studies raising questions and alarm bells.
Those with long memories will recall the shifts we had to make in New Zealand from the early 1980s. Let me remind you:
A simple ‘begging letter’ to a philanthropic or trust fund changed to formal application requirements and for reports on spending and demonstrable benefits or gains. Organisations were forced to hire people to spend their days making funding applications, thus increasing overhead costs. And philanthropic funders got into cahoots to determine which social issue of the moment deserved the most attention.
Contracts for health and social services devolved from government responsibility might have brought funding security, but the new environment came with fish-hooks like health and safety regulations; like additional responsibilities and accountability for volunteer governance, not to mention compliance costs. What was previously a mission-based civil society endeavour changed to dancing to the tune of government direction.
Consultation quickly became a dirty word as proposals were presented with invitation to comment, only to find policy directions had already been decided. Very little notice was taken of community responses no matter the expressed outrage. Neither were organisations given time or resources to present community views to government.
These are the bones now cemented into the community and voluntary sector. Fundraising has become a professional occupation, accompanied by the marketing experts so that organisations compete for the charity dollar and corporate sponsorship. Contracts with government are confidential and a gagging clause ensures docile compliance. These days it seems a consultation document is issued one week and turned into a political or regulatory edict just a few weeks later.
The government’s ‘relationship’ with the community and voluntary sector bound in the Kia Tutahi document counts for nothing against the control imposed by the contracting environment. Adding to this disregard of communities the Charities Commission is disestablished, its responsibilities now determined and regulated by a government department. The rules change and over a thousand organisations lose their charitable status and their ability to raise funds via the carrot of tax rebates. Advocacy is out, so longstanding organisations like Greenpeace and National Council of Women (NCW) are no longer deemed charities. In ‘the good old days’ NCW was a political force to be reckoned with, up there with Federated Farmers and the Federation of Labour.
Here is the sound of the silence of democratic dissent.
And this reality happens, the report’s findings say, regardless of which political party heads the government. It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected.
A few people will recognise a parallel universe in the way organisations can undervalue the work of managers of volunteers, and under-appreciate volunteer contributions to oiling social wheels and to maintaining community wellbeing in many different spheres. I could suggest this is a function of a trickle-down pecking order. I would sooner we took a stand to exercise our democratic voice, for volunteers and for the organisations that serve our communities.
There was plenty of encouragement to do just this at the recent Australasian Retreat for Advanced Management of Volunteers. Focus Up! was a key message. Recognise our roles as Leaders, Educators, Movers and Shakers and do something! Even if it means getting out of comfort zones, causing a stir, sticking heads over parapets. We owe it to volunteers and to our communities.
July 15, 2012
Last week I attended a fund-raising function organised by former refugees from the Kachin State in Myanmar. Most of them have not been here longer than 5 years. In very short order they learned about living in their new environment. They bonded as a group, like seeking like, as you do in strange territory. They learned from each other, finding out how to access resources, and supporting those who needed extra help. And the leaders among them established a national network to share local information and to keep in touch with homeland politics.
This function entertained both old and new Kiwi supporters with song and dance, and then provided a meal for 200 people. It was a superb demonstration of event management organisation and spirited goodwill: a totally awesome display of volunteering. Now they have raised a goodly sum to provide medical supplies and mosquito nets to send to the remote and primitive camps for displaced people in their homeland.
This story got me thinking of all the different representations of volunteering: there are a lot of related words and phrases in common parlance these days.
The Kindness of Strangers turns up as a book title, over and over. It’s there on You Tube presentations and in song lyrics, and a TV programme. It’s the title of a scientific study, which includes reference to that archetypal model of a kind stranger, the Good Samaritan. Pay it Forward is a variation on this theme – a practice that has been around a lot longer than the movie of this title. A Guardian (UK) article claims “a civil society needs the kindness of strangers and acquaintances”, and cites another report from the Young Foundation , which argues that
Civility is the largely invisible ‘glue’ that holds communities together, and that experiences of incivility cause hurt, stress and deeper social problems, and has a bigger impact of people’s sense of social health than crime statistics. Perhaps most significantly it shows that civility operates on a reciprocal basis and that it is ‘contagious’.
Volunteering is also touted as a glue to hold communities together; and ‘civility’ reminds me of Civil Society – which is just the term to embrace volunteering and all the ways we talk about community and people. Like this:
Civil society activity meets fundamental human wants and needs, and provides an expression for hopes and aspirations. It reaches parts of our lives and souls that are beyond the state and business. It takes much of what we care about most in our private lives and gives it shape and structure, helping us to amplify care, compassion and hope. (Making Good Society, 2010)
The Gift Economy is another variant of the concept of volunteering, that ancient practice of exchange and sharing that kept the wheels on communities before we got hooked into market-economy drivers. And the Gift Economy is still a big one. Pacific Nations can enjoy remittances from emigrants that total more than local economies. Maori consciousness of collective wellbeing and responsibility means ‘volunteering’ in the accepted definition has no equivalent in their language. So we refer to mahi aroha – “work performed out of love, sympathy or caring”, which is part of everyday cultural life within family/whanau, and marae communities. Nor should we forget that New Zealand’s 4.9% contribution to GDP by the community and volunteer sector is another constituent of the Gift Economy.
And then I think of Altruism, a virtue demonstrating a selfless concern for others, the opposite of Selfishness. It is a huge topic, involving religion, philosophy and pretty much all of the social sciences. Volunteering is a form of altruism, given the normative definition of free will and no financial reward. And wouldn’t you know it – research is showing a strong correlation between volunteering and personal health and well-being. Volunteering, as a Gift Relationship, is always a two-way stretch.
One more piece in the jigsaw of volunteering is Philanthropy, that munificent gesture that is going to keep an organisation solvent for another year. Etymologists will recognise the Greek origins of this word, meaning ‘love of humanity’. It’s another way to reinforce all the interpretations of volunteering I have highlighted. Philanthropy is about private initiatives for public good, operating outside government and business. You could say Philanthropy embraces all the elements above, writ large.
I learn from these reflections that “volunteering” is a fundamental element of being human, of belonging to a community of family and friends and to wider connections. Long may this premise remain without corruption.
May 20, 2012
In all the gloom and doom of national and international economics the volunteer industry keeps on keeping on. Numbers of volunteers continue to increase, now spread across a wider age range than in generations past, and across different sectors. The range of volunteer activities broadens as organisations raise their expectations and the standards of volunteer programmes, as the manager of volunteers becomes recognised as a leader holding a pivotal role in developing and maintaining volunteer services.
There could be quite a number of people wanting to tell me “it ain’t necessarily so”. Somebody is bound to point out how volunteer recruitment and retention is so often the most wanted topic on Volunteer Centre training schedules. There are lots of reasons for this: turnover in people working with volunteers, a lack of specific training on management of volunteers, getting behind the times in new ways to attract volunteers, and the different expectations of volunteers – you know, using social media, getting upbeat in advertising, creating new roles for volunteers.
There will always be room for improvement. And there are always people out there thinking about volunteering who need a bit of encouragement.
Like a conversation I had last week that went like this:
- I am asked: Are you working, or retired?
- I talk a bit about being involved in the Management of Volunteers Project, and why. Of course it’s a great opportunity to do a bit of a sell, on volunteering and on the importance of good management for volunteers.
- Oh, she says a little wistfully, I’ve thought about volunteering, and I could ‘cos I work part-time. I do like shopping, she adds, eyes lighting up at the thought of being a volunteer that got to browse the malls and shopping meccas.
- Well, I advise, it’s really important that you get a job that you like, and managers try to match your interests.
So then I went on about how to connect, how to find out what volunteer positions were available. Easy as, I said – you can do it all on the computer. Or you could go to Facebook – there are regular inserts on volunteer opportunities. Or go visit a Volunteer Centre. That’s where you can get registered and get referred to places that could meet your interests and expectations.
I don’t know if I have enabled one more person to join the ranks of volunteers, but at least I have taken the opportunity to offer some good leads and some encouragement to give it a go.
In just four weeks’ time New Zealand will be alive with exhibitions and events to promote and to celebrate volunteering. Volunteer Awareness Week will have something for everyone. This annual programme serves to illustrate the breadth and depth of volunteering and all the organisations that go to make our Civil Society.
Volunteers are everywhere. When I go to catch a bus I walk past the Community Centre which is always alive with people meeting for community purposes. Around the corner I can find the local Community Garden, and further on is the Citizens Advice Bureau staffed by warm and welcoming volunteers. When I go walking on one of the many trails around Wellington I see the work of volunteers who have been landscaping a desolate environment, restoring native plants and trees, recovering a waterway to re-introduce native fish. During the weekend I’ll be watching some kids run around a cold and muddy sports field, and I will be admiring the volunteers who are team coaches, managers and referees, and the ones who organise the rota for half-time oranges and the jersey washing. My weekly community newspapers tell me more, about op-shops run by volunteers, about food collections for Food Banks, or a meal delivery service for new mums. Volunteers knock at my door, doing their stuff as collectors for a fund-raising appeal. Email newsletters turn up in my in-box, crafted by volunteers.
That’s the way of my community, just a small part of it. This year’s slogan for Volunteer awareness week is Building Communities through Volunteering. That’s what we do, and you can read more here.