May 15, 2016
I am going to be out of the country when National Volunteer Week happens in New Zealand. I shall be in places that are not country members of IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort) – though I have no doubt there is a lot of volunteering going on. So I shall Make Time now to do some promoting for the event, and to take a good look at that theme of Making Time.
Let’s find out first what National Volunteer Week is all about. It was a Canadian invention, according to this bit of history. Back in 1943, this was a week to celebrate efforts made to the war effort by women on the home front. After a post-war decline it got revived in the 1960s and spread in popularity to the United States, to become from 1974 an annual Presidential Proclamation. In this first year, President Richard Nixon declared a National Volunteer Week to be dedicated to those who give their time to charity:
“I urge all Americans to observe that week by seeking out an area in their community in which they can give to a needy individual or worthy cause by devoting a few hours, or more, to volunteer service.”
By this decree National Volunteer Week becomes the original call to Make Time, as well as recognising and celebrating the efforts of volunteers. It is now a feature on the calendar for UK, Australia and New Zealand organisations.
Volunteering New Zealand introduces its 2016 campaign as a call for action:
Lack of time is the most commonly cited reason why people don’t volunteer, both in NZ and internationally. We believe that for volunteering to flourish, and the various benefits of volunteering to be realised, people are increasingly going to need to make time, now and into the future.
Complaints about recruitment difficulties have been going on for years. In recent times being ‘time poor’ is a continuing refrain, along with organisations reporting ‘can’t get the skills we need’, and ‘can’t get people to stay on’. And yet, statistics from various sources (and various methodologies) indicate around one third of our population make time to volunteer, and the people who volunteer the most, arguably those in the midst of child-rearing and career commitments, are those in the 30-39 age cohort.
Of course we cannot literally create more time. But look how we have learned to squeeze more into each day, to pursue not just household management and holding down paid employment and getting our share of a good night’s sleep. We make time to watch TV, play sport, socialise with friends, and even to read a book. Adding in a slice of volunteering is, like those activities, a matter of choice.
Choosing to volunteer can come from a cultural obligation, a passion for a cause, a belief in community, a need to belong, and simply because you want a diversion from your day job – as well as those drivers like looking for work experience, learning new skills and for learning about the local community and its resources.
And if volunteers do make that choice, if they do Make Time, they want it to be worthwhile. So organisations have to up their game, offer ‘bespoke’ volunteer opportunities, positions tailored to the interests and skills of the volunteer. Requests for short-term assignments are a challenge for organisations accustomed to the forever-volunteer, requiring adjustment to training schedules, planning for continuity as well as constant change. Paid staff working with volunteers need to Make Time to identify volunteer opportunities and to be creative in how volunteers could be engaged.
And paid staff will also need to Make Time to establish relationships with volunteers, to orient them to their work, and to provide support if necessary. If you say you just don’t have the time then you will miss a whole lot of added value that volunteers can bring to your daily work. And you might even miss finding the volunteer who could save you a whole load of time.
So to keep volunteers Making Time, adopt these words to show your appreciation for what volunteers can do:
And thank you for Making Time to read this blog.
April 10, 2016
In all the chatter (and the writing) about volunteers and volunteering, about community organisations and their services, about governance and fundraising and publicity and professionalism, I do not often hear voices raised about the experience of volunteering.
Yes, there’s many a volunteer’s story to tell, usually a glowing account of being involved in the community, being passionate about a cause, learning new skills which accessed paid work, but less about the role and tasks, and the direct experience of being a volunteer.
There are plenty of examples of volunteer profiling, by age, gender, ethnicity, education – all the demographics which might indicate trends, but which do not tell us anything about what it is like to volunteer. Likewise, the boasting of volunteer programmes by numbers of volunteers, their donated hours and a little of the tasks they undertake for an organisation is not a real picture of volunteer experience.
There’s all the research that shows off the health and social benefits of volunteering – we can live longer and continue being active in our communities. Volunteering is also the way for new migrants to become engaged, and to improve language skills. But what is it really like to be a volunteer?
We do the recognition and rewards through annual events, and say ‘thank you’ plenty of times in everyday practice. But when do we ask volunteers what it is like for them?
And yes, there are exit interviews or questionnaires when a volunteer leaves an organisation. Not a universal practice, and not always capturing what the experience has meant for the volunteer. It’s too easy for the volunteer to fudge responses to the questions, or to not answer at all.
So I’m looking out for the studies, or for someone to take on research, which addresses the question:
WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF VOLUNTEERING?
OK, it’s complex. What sort of sample is needed? Which sector or sectors to include? Which location(s)? Include all ‘types’ of volunteers – from governance to fundraising and events, as well as regular roles – or be selective? And what are the questions to ask?
In 2012, Volunteering Auckland published Martin J Cowling’s suggestions to consider the way volunteering impacts on volunteers:
Have you asked your volunteers what volunteering has done for them? Many will describe the impact of the services they have given, the people they have touched and the difference they feel they have made.
There’s a lot more to find out, as Susan J Ellis wrote in 2006. She asked Wouldn’t It Be Nice to Really Know, arguing that volunteering is so complex that ‘a simplistic overview of aggregate numbers is not enough for us to understand what is going on’. The article includes a raft of potential questions that could offer some serious data on volunteer experience.
And then there is a report published by the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy in 2004 on Understanding Canadian Volunteers. While this document is aimed at people new to management of volunteers (and it’s got some good data and advice for a volunteer programme), the benefit of understanding volunteer experience helps to consider:
- the obstacles you may encounter in recruitment and retention;
- the challenges you may face in job design and scheduling;
- the issues that may arise as you develop your volunteer training programs; and,
- how best to recognize volunteers through recognition activities.
Yes, these issues are important for a volunteer programme to be effective. More than the trappings of motivation, I want to see what it really takes to keep a volunteer keeping on. Maybe then we will get to understand and appreciate the full contributions of volunteers to our organisations and communities, and their real value. We will cease ‘using’ volunteers; we will ensure meaningful work; and we will honour their work in a hundred ways, for the value added to the organisation’s mission and for what they have shown us about the spirit of giving.
March 13, 2016
After the excitement of the recruitment phase and the pronouncements of a new intake of volunteers, what are the factors that will keep them on track and stay engaged?
There are many laments from organisations about the ready dis-engagement of volunteers, and their apparent lack of commitment, as reported in Volunteering New Zealand’s first report on the State of Volunteering.
Yes, you can feel miffed that volunteers go through the application and screening process and then don’t show up for training. Yes, it can be costly to train volunteers only to find they don’t sign up for a role, or a make short-lived appearance. Yes, it is disappointing when people volunteer in order to gain work experience only to shoot off when they get a job.
Yes, the nature of volunteering is changing: more people look for task-focussed and time-limited assignments. But that does not mean volunteer effort is always a ‘one-off’ or short-lived.
It all gets a bit difficult when there’s so much to do in running a volunteer programme and the volunteers come and go. So what are the initiatives that could counter all these glum pronouncements? Here’s a list of best tips to make the most of volunteers, whether they are short-term or stayers.
- Being very clear about expectations is a good start, especially with role definitions and time commitment – yet allowing space for negotiation on how and when the time and tasks will be given.
- Show volunteers, in a hundred different ways, that they are valued and their work appreciated.
- Exit Interviews can be a means to explore reasons for leaving and feedback on the volunteer experience and programme management. Whether in a questionnaire format or a face-to-face meeting, finding out more about the volunteer’s experience and inviting feedback on the programme can show where improvements could be made. You might have to be a bit searching to uncover comments like ‘don’t like the work’, ‘nobody talks to me’, ‘too many rules’, ‘not what I expected’ that underlie the ‘no time’ reasons.
- Offer alternatives to those who talk of leaving, such as less frequent assignments, or different roles, or ways to keep their interest like receiving newsletters or joining a ‘Friends of’ group. Because even if those young people and busy parents of young children don’t stay long they have been exposed to volunteering and to the organisation’s services, and chances are they will come back to volunteering at some stage.
- Develop a plan for volunteer ‘career development’, as in assigning team leadership roles. Offer extra training, or ‘support group’ meetings. One of my best volunteer experiences was a regular check-in on how things were going, creating a bonding with other volunteers and enhancing links with the organisation.
- Work on new initiatives, designed for volunteers to try out new ways of service delivery. And take up volunteer suggestions and good ideas. That is how many an organisation got started, and maybe it is time for a re-boot.
Of course none of us take for granted that each new volunteer will stay forever. The question is: what are we doing to keep them engaged, and how can we adjust organisation needs to maintain volunteer commitment?
Like all relationships, whether romantic engagements or employment contracts, it takes thought and effort to keep volunteers keeping on. Don’t let them give up with easy excuses.
February 14, 2016
I take an inward groan when I hear tell of organisations having trouble recruiting the volunteer numbers they would like. Over the years of my volunteering experience I have found the trouble is not in the nuts and bolts process of recruitment, it’s more about the lack of engagement with the volunteer.
I reckon most managers of volunteers have got the hang of the basics, like policies and job descriptions and training. We all know (don’t we?) about targeted recruitment, sending out the best message, through a variety of media, and of course asking current volunteers to spread the word. But what happens next, when the new willing-hands go up, is the critical point.
I’m talking about ‘getting engaged’. Not in any romantic sense, you understand, simply establishing a relationship between volunteer and the programme manager, between the volunteer and the organisation and its staff.
Except it seems this is not so simple. Here’s my list of would-be-volunteer songs that are too often left unsung in accepted practice.
I make a call or email the organisation’s contact person, and I never hear back.
If there is an interview it is all a bit perfunctory, concluding with an urgent tone of ‘when can you start?’
If I ask what sort of work there is on offer, either the tasks turn out to be pretty meaningless or the volunteer role is glossed over as being easy to pick up. A job description is not always available.
When I take up this rather vague arrangement I discover my work shifts are not always regular and there are frequent short-notice requests for extra assignments.
I can get to know a few of the other volunteers, the one’s I work with, but it’s hard to learn the names of staff, and they seem to belong in a different world.
And I’d really like a bit more of a connection than the irregular group message via social media that offers a collective thanks, or (more-likely) instructions to correct errors some volunteers have made. I never hear why my volunteer effort is important and what we have achieved for the organisation.
Sadly, this litany of bad news stories is not uncommon: see this satirical video for a reality check. It leaves a sour taste for would-be volunteers, and a bad press for the organisation. And it does not do volunteerism any good.
So what do I mean by ‘engaging’ with volunteers? Clearly there are some straightforward steps to counter the negatives above. Better still, is the effort put into establishing a relationship with volunteers.
This means an interview with a new volunteer is about a welcome and a two-way discussion to see if the interests of both sides are going to come to mutual satisfaction, to meet in the middle. And that’s just the beginning. Yes, police and referee checks might need to be done, but that relationship-building continues with orientation to the organisation, introductions to staff, and to a training programme.
We could say this is the ‘courting’ stage of an engagement. All the time we are getting to know each other, checking out likes and dislikes, strengths and vulnerabilities. We are building mutual trust and respect, and when volunteers share their personal circumstances and other commitments we get a steer on how they will fit into the organisation and how to draw on their skills and experience. When you think of the variety of volunteer backgrounds, and their range of motivations, this relationship-building period becomes even more important.
Of course the engagement is just the beginning. Any relationship needs regular maintenance, and for volunteers that means enjoying their work and knowing their efforts are appreciated. Paid staff will welcome volunteers by name when they begin their shifts, and offer a sincere thank you when leaving. Volunteers are invited to give feedback and to contribute ideas and new initiatives to the organisation. In turn, volunteers are supported in their work, know the process for resolving disputes, and are kept informed about organisation developments.
None of this stuff is over-the-top difficult to accomplish. It does imply that a manager of volunteers needs to be a ‘people person’ with well-honed communication skills. But aren’t these qualities what everyone needs when they are involved in the community and voluntary sector? And while some organisations have grown to corporate size, and as pressures increase for businesslike operations, engaging volunteers and maintaining healthy relationships with them will never go away.
January 26, 2016
The New Year has not rolled over with great optimism. There are more columns devoted to dealing with back-to-work blues than with 2016 opportunities. In the NFP sector organisations face another year of funding constraints, government expectations (and directives), and rising competition for securing contracts. Not to mention public concern for inequality, child poverty, housing shortages, the environment, and the implications of TPPA.
It looks like we are repeating Rousseau’s adage: Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. The ethic of Fairness that has been a hallmark of New Zealand’s history is rapidly eroding, so it is no surprise to find a call to renew our social contract with government, specially in the light of the electorate’s disenchantment when it comes to exercising democratic voting rights.
Yet there is something else going on, almost under the radar. While the formal NFP sector wrings its hands, numbers of informal clusters of community groups and enterprises are increasing in response to social needs, community development initiatives continue to achieve their goals, and the ‘hand-up’ helping scene is thriving. As Colin Rochester has advocated, I am hearing the beat of a different drum.*
Statistics NZ has published results of its 2014 survey of social networks and support. In terms of how Kiwis connect 93% live in supportive neighbourhoods; 78% have friends living close by or in the same neighbourhood; around 64% belong to a club, group or organisation (we have long been known as ‘joiners’); and nearly all of us (97%) have at least one supportive family member. That looks like a pretty good level of social connectedness, despite poverty and poor living conditions for one in seven households in New Zealand. As active examples Neighbourly Facebook pages might be a digital means of communication, but it sure is an effective way to keep in touch with what is going on around your area, and about local resources. Inspiring Communities continue to facilitate community-led development, and to promote Neighbours’ Day. Time Banks are flourishing.
This ethic of reciprocity and a relationship economy is alive and well, and new and energetic small scale groups are proving their worth in social action. Some may not call such activity volunteering, yet it still involves unpaid time, energy and skills.
When it comes to donating money the World Giving Index 2015 rates New Zealand third, just behind Myanmar and the US. We are up two places from 2014, and the fourth most active nation for volunteering. Numbers donating money to charity rose by a significant 11%.
Has the press of poverty enhanced the giving spirit of Kiwis? Or is it due to the influence of Pay It Forward philosophy, the promotion of Giving Tuesday, Good Deeds Day and GiveALittle crowd-funding website? Well, we know about the health benefits of volunteering, and it seems giving money, like kindness, also has its own rewards. And more often than not volunteers are both time and money donors.
Yet word is that volunteer numbers have fallen in US by 3.5% in the last ten years, and by 5% in Australia over five years. (No recent information is available for New Zealand.)
It is time to pay more attention to the informal NFP sector, where effective volunteering doesn’t just happen: it’s based on the fundamentals of good relationships, a sense of community interdependence and a commitment to social action. There could be some valuable learning in a different approach to volunteering.
Rochester, Colin (2013) Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
December 3, 2015
A couple of weeks ago I was at the Volunteering New Zealand Conference e tu, where we heard a lot about the progress champion organisations have made through adopting the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations. Results are impressive, for managers of volunteers, for volunteers, and for the whole organisation.
I got excited to learn about a new set of values developed by St John New Zealand. Because organisation values have been a long-standing academic and applied interest for me. Here’s some thoughts I wrote three years ago.
In that blog I was concerned about the distance between words adopted as values and their meaning, and about organisational response to the importance of values.
Not every organisation displays their values on a website or their letterhead. Questions about organisation values are rarely asked in recruitment interviews. Monitoring behaviour against the meaning of value words is a low priority. Could this lack of attention explain the ease of ‘mission creep’ and ‘marketisation’ of many organisations over recent times?
What got me excited about St John’s innovation is the language used, avoiding the usual high-level abstract virtues:
Our five Values guide how we do things together as One St John. These are:
We do the Right Thing – Whakaaro Tika We take responsibility. Make the tough calls. Think of others.
We stand Side by Side – Whakakoha We respect, value and support what others contribute.
We Make it Better – Whakawerohia We find solutions- step up, own it, do it.
We have Open Minds – Whakahangahanga We listen openly. Encourage ideas. Welcome feedback.
We are Straight Up – Whakapono We act with honesty, courage and kindness.
Yes, there is still some abstraction. But note how Inclusive is present throughout the iteration: We do things together, and each value is a declaration of intent prefaced by We, indicating again that everyone in the organisation is involved. Instead of the word Integrity, widely invoked as a value in the sector, each value resounds with responsible ethical practice. Dignity isn’t there either, but inferred in Think of others, Respect what others contribute, Acting with kindness. No need to talk of Excellence – striving for the best is inherent in every one of those values.
Note also how each value is underpinned by behavioural expectations. These are the benchmarks that will steer all operations throughout the organisation. No longer are values something for the Board and the Senior Management Team to worry about: all staff and volunteers are responsible for aligning their actions with the stated intent of the values. There’s accountability for you, and potentially an indicator of performance and impact.
Anyone who has been involved in culture change in an organisation will know what an enormous undertaking this can be, taking a long time, overcoming resistance, and downright frustrating at times for all parties. St John New Zealand, an organisation that serves communities throughout the country, with staff and volunteers numbering thousands, has made the process look straightforward.
When an organisation establishes a new strategic plan and finds the old values are out of touch it is time for change. St John set up a steering group of representatives ‘from the shop floor’, to canvass people in all parts of the country on the values that were significant in their work. Yes, there was an external agency involved, but it was the steering group that led discussions and gathered feedback. There was a high level of engagement throughout, and it took months.
Once the preferred values were identified and named another round of meetings ensued, presenting results, encouraging understanding and buy-in of the new look line-up of values. Additional information and resources were available too, including a badge to pin on uniform shirts.
And all the time St John kept an eye on the Best Practice Guidelines, monitoring performance against changes observed and responses to the new values.
Thank you, St John New Zealand, for showing the way to implement change, and thank you Volunteering New Zealand for providing the platform.
August 30, 2015
Years ago I heard a claim that if you have not been exposed to volunteering before the age of 15 you are unlikely to volunteer as an adult. I have never been able to find a source, or to know if this assertion can be verified, but I sure am aware of the current level of involvement by young people in volunteer projects of all kinds.
It’s like there is a huge surge of interest, from schools, organisations, communities and young people themselves. Young people create their own organisations, like Canteen, or SADD, or the Student Volunteer Army, or their own specific projects. Young people are the faces of Youthline and UN Youth Aotearoa New Zealand.
The conventional age range for youth is 15-24, but volunteering can start at a much younger age. How about the infant that goes with his Mum to a High School Class to talk about child-rearing and parenting? (It’s the Mum who does the talking of course.) Or the whole families who get involved in fundraising or a beach clean-up? Or you can stretch the age range to 30, and find at least one Volunteer Centre consistently registers its highest proportion of volunteers in the 20-29 age band.
Yay! Here are another couple of generations coming along to inspire communities, to advocate for and to lead change, and to fill gaps or attend to particular needs – even as older people fade from the volunteering scene.
Student Community Involvement Programmes have been a feature in New Zealand since the early 1990s, developed and promoted by several Volunteer Centres to introduce young people to volunteering and to learn about different parts of their communities. Establish relations with schools and youth groups and services, negotiate for projects with local organisations and there can be lots of satisfaction all round.
But not if your experience is like this story:
A class of eleven and twelve year olds are assigned to a coastal regeneration programme, clearing the scrubby stuff and replanting the area. ‘Assigned’ sounds like there is not much choice, like it’s not the students’ idea. If you didn’t want to go you had to stick around at school all day with nothing to do. When the students get to the location there is little instruction and not enough tools for everyone. OK – those hanging around can go and do a beach clean-up.
No wonder there were plenty of gripes and groans from this episode, which was not, I hasten to add, organised through a Volunteer Centre.
So it’s clear the basic principles of a good volunteer programme still apply, regardless of the age of volunteers. Get the planning done, ensure you’ve got adequate resources, and most of all check the project is something young people really want to work on. See this excellent resource, or this one to learn the best practice tricks.
When Student Volunteer Week comes around on September 7 I hope there will be plenty of opportunities to celebrate student volunteer efforts in the community. Let’s acknowledge their initiatives, enthusiasm, commitment and their willingness to pitch in and to ‘make a difference’.
PS “Get them while they’re young” is a line from the musical Evita, interposed on a paean to ‘Santa Evita’ sung by a chorus of children.
July 26, 2015
I’ve been hearing about the implications of an ageing population for a long time now. Prognostications include an awful lot of doom and gloom about the cost of pensions and health services, and the shrinking tax-paying work force available to support that expenditure. At the same time there is much laudatory exposure of the engagement of young people in volunteering – Gen Y and the Millenials.
The World Giving Index (2013) shows that “Global youth are driving the rise in volunteering: Since 2011, the biggest increase in participation in volunteering has occurred among 15-24 year olds. Within three years this age group has gone from being the least likely to the second most likely to volunteer.”
An outspoken blogger argues the obsession with Millenials is a Nonprofit Trend that has to Die. “There are other groups we also need to pay attention to, like the Boomers, who will be retiring and affecting the sector in various ways.”
So I went looking for what’s happening in volunteering, for the data that might give me a reality test of who is doing what.
Statistics New Zealand’s Time Use Survey 2009/2010 showed older people (aged 65+) spent more time on unpaid work than people at other life stages – 4 hours and 31 minutes a day; young people (aged 12–24 years) spent the least, at 1 hour and 46 minutes. OK – that information is a bit old, but gives a pretty clear difference between age groups.
A bit more up to date is 2012 information from Volunteering NZ’s Statistics on Volunteering (New Zealand General Social Survey). People aged 65-74 reported undertaking volunteering work the most (37.7%) followed by people aged 45-54 (34.4%). People in the 25-34 age group reported the lowest rate of volunteering (24.8%). When measured by life-stage, the proportion of people volunteering increases from 28.8% of young adults volunteering to 35% of older people, as indicated in the following graph.
On the other hand, Department of Internal Affairs (NZ) Quarterly Volunteering & Donating Indicators for the September 2014 quarter show that people between the ages of 30-39 were the largest cohort of volunteers. People of 60-74 and 75+ years were not far behind. Long-term trend indicates people aged 40-49 have had the highest percentage of volunteers for 11 of the 19 quarters analysed. Ages 10-19 have lowest % for 16 of 19 quarters.
US Bureau of Statistics data for 2014 finds that people aged 35-44 were most likely to volunteer (29.8 %). Volunteer rates were lowest among 20- to 24-year-olds (18.7%). For persons 45 years and over, the volunteer rate tapered off as age increased, though the rate for people aged 65 and over was 23.6%. Teenagers (16- to 19-year-olds) had a volunteer rate of 26.1%.
NCVO figures from UK Civil Society Almanac 2014 note that between around a quarter (24%) and a third (33%) of people in each age range report volunteering at least once a month, with those aged 65-74 the most likely to volunteer this frequently.
Enough! From this mish-mash of information I take the following points:
- Yes, there is a significant rise in the rates of youth volunteering, but they don’t put in the hours that older people (65+) work as volunteers.
- What is fairly consistent is the highest rate of volunteering in the 30-49 age group, what is (or used to be) called middle adulthood, when involvement in children’s school and sporting activities and local community services can be expected.
- Yet, in New Zealand at least, it seems older people (65+ years) are the biggest contributors to the community and volunteer sector.
So why are we not hearing more about what older volunteers can do, about attracting older people to volunteering? Specially when we know they are living longer in better health, and how volunteering can be good for both physical and social health. The buzz of volunteering and its intangible (and tangible) rewards are just as important for older people as for younger generations.
A UK report on the future of volunteering in an ageing society indicates the challenges, like they keep on working till at least age 70; they take on extra grandparent duties (or even full-time parenting); and bountiful economic years have given many of them opportunities for travel. Anxiety about being a ‘do-gooder’ or ‘interfering’ is also expressed by people raised in an era of different social norms. And current marketing and promotion of volunteering is not reaching them.
Some excellent resources for engaging with Boomers are available, from best practice to tips and tools. It’s all the stuff we’ve been preaching in New Zealand about management of volunteers for the past five years and a reminder about being inclusive in volunteer programmes. Boomers are too big a population to ignore, and volunteering is their best opportunity to keep involved in all spheres of community life.
As an 82 year old Ambassador promoting Boomer volunteering for Volunteering Waikato has said: No-one should ever be left out!
According to Henry Ford, “Anyone who stops learning is old – anyone who keeps learning stays young”.
And that’s the point made by the president of New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) in 2012:
It has become an obsession to label people as belonging to supposedly homogenous generations – be that Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials or Baby Boomers. Often this labelling becomes a tool for negatively creating false and divisive barriers between generations, or setting one generation against another. Carelessly used, these labels perpetuate ideas of ‘them’ and ‘us’, rather than helping us to build greater social cohesion.
Being a student is one of those shared experiences that continues throughout our lives – we never cease to learn. So everyone is a Generation Student!
That label would suit me just fine, because I could be learning from young people as well as my peers.
So let’s spread the word about the variety of volunteer challenges available to the Boomer generation, about the opportunities to apply their skills and experience, and the opportunities to learn more, and about the richness of belonging and being involved in our communities.
June 27, 2015
Volunteering is for anyone and everyone! That’s the celebrating we have been doing for this week. The theme for National Volunteer Week, as the banner says, is ‘There is a place for you to volunteer’, ‘He wahi mohou hei tuao’. And you just had to cast your eye over press releases and newspaper inserts and social media posts to notice how much volunteering is going on, and how widespread it is across our communities.
Volunteering is nothing less than diversity, in volunteer opportunities, the volunteers themselves, and in the impacts of volunteering.
There’s a young mum and her infant daughter who go visiting at a rest home; you can live a boyhood dream as an engine driver; there are countless opportunities to get outdoors into conservation projects; you can pay it forward in volunteering with emergency services or a health sector organisation; become a best buddy to people who want a bit more social contact; be the key support person to help a refugee family find a place in their community; try to make a dent in the effects of poverty or violence, or the abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Volunteers are found in schools and hospitals and all the big institutions. They keep sports clubs going, drive emergency services, environment and heritage conservation. They make national and local events and festivals the best ever. They just keep on keeping on, whatever and wherever. (You can read more about the importance of diversity in a volunteer programme here.)
Yes, you know all that.
Of course we are thanking volunteers every day, in all sorts of ways. But on this one week of the year, what are we thanking them for? The litany of platitudes still gets paraded:
Thanks to our wonderful volunteers
We couldn’t manage without you
We really need you
You help us make a difference (to what? I might ask)
Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organisation
Much better, and more enlightening, are the messages coming through that tell something of what volunteers do for the organisation:
Thank you to all the volunteers ….
…..who work hard to ensure safe, enjoyable experiences in New Zealand’s outdoors for us all.
…..for helping to give more than 4000 individuals and families a hand up during the past year.
…..for supporting skilled migrants in their search for meaningful work.
…..for giving someone a second chance at life.
…..for helping support a life without limits.
…..for skills in providing telephone advice and resources.
Yes, you know all that stuff too.
This year there is a lot more quoting of figures related to volunteer services. But oh dear, the wide variation makes me wonder what oracles were consulted for the information.
Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector says: “On average there are just over 400,000 kiwis volunteering every week for a charity, adding up to over 1.5 million hours contributed to our communities”.
Another report says nearly 500,000 people volunteer on a weekly basis; or 800,000 hours of work per week. This rate amounts to 15.5% of the population, per week. Per annum it is said 1.2 million people volunteer – about 25% of total population.
Different research methodology and different variables make for a confusing mix of information.
I have a bit more confidence in the Quarterly indicators from Department of Internal Affairs for September 2014 (the latest available):
- Nearly 35 per cent of all respondents volunteered at least one hour of their time. This is the highest volunteering rate of the five years measured.
- Of those who volunteered, 59 per cent were female and 41 per cent were male.
- People between the ages of 30-39 volunteered the most.
And now there is a brand new survey from Seek Volunteer New Zealand which sheds a poor light on Wellingtonians: under 19% of working Kiwis in the region currently volunteer, though 38% say they have volunteered previously. It’s the lack of time, say 69% of those surveyed. Volunteer Wellington issued a prompt response which tells a different story:
‘Of the approximately 3000 volunteer seekers who come through our matching processes every year, those in the ‘working’ (meaning in full-time employment and part-time) category, have increased over the past few years and is currently nearly a third of our total volunteer seeker cohort.’
‘Annually we work with between 800–1000 employee volunteers who are matched with any one of our 400+ community organisation members to be connected with projects of interest. Last year 87 such projects took place, ranging from physical work to skill based programmes and, with several of these employee volunteering teams, being involved on a weekly basis.’
So while we claim New Zealand has a culture that values and encourages volunteering we are not so good in getting our facts together, or at least determining a consistent base-line for data-gathering.
Small wonder that organisations are being pressed to deliver measurable outcomes for the services delivered through government contracts. At the beginning of June the Minister of Social Development announces a new Community Investment Strategy to “create a more results-focused and evidence-based approach for purchasing of social services for vulnerable people and communities, and will also be more transparent, targeted, flexible and efficient”. On the first day of National Volunteer Week a clear warning is issued that more funding cuts are on the horizon.
No question that community social service organisations are under threat. I’d like to think the prospect of significant change creates a real opportunity to put volunteering up where it belongs. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark understood the importance of volunteering when she said “without volunteers New Zealand would stop”. (She repeated the tenor of this comment on Twitter on International Volunteer Day in 2014, as head of UNDP).
Volunteering will not go away any time soon. The adaptations to changing conditions will continue, innovation and enterprise will keep on creating new ways of responding to diverse situations – as people have done for millennia.
Seek Volunteer NZ might have got its figures wrong, but they have produced excellent presentations of real volunteers and the reality of volunteering. And included is the best line of the whole week, said by a volunteer about her work, illustrating yet another dimension of volunteering – the personal value:
You can’t put a price on the feeling of what you can get out of it – you can’t.