August 22, 2010

The Gift Relationship

Posted in Leading Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers at 10:07 pm by Sue Hine

 A long time ago I read a book with this title. Written by Richard Titmuss, the social policy guru of the 1970s, it is a global survey and analysis about donating blood, highlighting the difference between altruistic giving and a commercial transaction. At the time I was enormously impressed by arguments and evidence that showed blood given freely was much less likely to be contaminated (by hepatitis) than the vials that earned their donors a few dollars. Volunteering is indeed a gift, embracing the following concepts (from http://www.volunteeringaustralia.org).

Formal volunteering is an activity which takes place through not for profit organisations or projects and is undertaken:

• to be of benefit to the community and the volunteer;

• of the volunteer’s own free will and without coercion;

• for no financial payment; and

• in designated volunteer positions only.

Like blood donation services this definition has become a bit contaminated over the past few decades. Look at the range of motivations for volunteering: as work experience, a means to rehabilitation, not to mention the rise of corporate volunteering and the huge expectations by government that the volunteer sector can work miracles in service provision. Here’s something to think about:

Do people do altruistic things—including volunteering—because they are truly altruistic and selfless, or because they themselves receive some sort of benefit from every altruistic-seeming act?

Well, this is where I have to trot out some mottoes that have been around since biblical times.

• It is more blessed to give than to receive (Bible, Acts 20:35)

• Do unto others as you would have them do to you. (Bible, Luke 6:31) (Also called the Golden Rule, because this ethic is present in all world religions)

• “The milk of human kindness” – which we understand as care and compassion for others. However, the origin of the phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth Act 1, scene 5, 15–18, when Lady Macbeth carps at her husband for his nature – he is too soft to match her ambitions – he’s nothing but a milksop.

On the other hand there are plenty of people who say “You never do anything for nothing”, and those who describe ‘giving’ as “a selfish act”. There could well be a touch of Calvinism here, but read the following story to figure whether volunteering is simply selfless altruism.

I was a tough manager of volunteers, never one to shy away from asking awkward questions, issuing the challenges to make people think. Instead of individual interviews for new applicants I organised group screening sessions (the biggest-ever time-saver). Let’s jumble all the candidates together, put them up with their peers so they are not parroting what they think the interviewer wants to hear. And right after the initial icebreaker introduction stuff people had to talk in pairs (1) about why they wanted to volunteer for this organisation, and (2) what they thought they might gain from volunteering – with people they had never met before. Every time, year after year, there was the same collation of reasons for volunteering, and every time, year after year, there was a blank stare when I asked about their expectations.

Oh, I don’t want to gain anything, I just want to give.

That’s what I heard most often. And that’s when I delivered my lecture. ‘Keep your hearts and minds open’, I would say, ‘and you will learn about people, about communication and relationships, and most of all about yourself.’ And they did.

Giving, as in volunteering, involves a relationship which by definition is an exchange between people. So the volunteers would come back to me to say what a great experience they had had. I watched the shy and diffident people grow in confidence and become respected for the work they did with difficult people. I noticed how people found strengths they never thought they had. And the client population noticed too. They sent in their thank you letters and mentioned volunteers by name, and when I passed on such messages to the volunteer, they sat up with pride and a sense of achievement.

The thesis of Titmuss’s Gift Relationship is now regarded as passé. That’s a pity, because in many ways these two words capture the essence of volunteering, the business of giving and receiving, of living together, being interdependent. Regardless of the sophistication of modern society, regardless of the reasons that bring people to volunteering, there is still a fundamental human spirit that strives to belong in communities.

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