September 12, 2010

People Power

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter at 5:23 am by Sue Hine

If ever there were doubts about volunteer resources in New Zealand they have been put to rest over the past week. 

In Christchurch we have seen the best of volunteering in action, following the earthquake that happened where no earthquake ought to have been.

Volunteers from Civil Defence, Ambulance and Fire Services responded immediately, demonstrating the benefits of good training and sound leadership.  Red Cross and the Salvation Army were also ready to rise to the occasion.  I guess we should expect good organisation from these designated emergency and relief services.

What we do not often see is the spirit of community as shown by the people of Canterbury over the days following that Saturday morning wake-up call.  From my armchair comfort in Wellington I noted the following news media items: 

  • Neighbours gathered in streets and then shared resources with those whose homes were more badly damaged – so that numbers turning up at emergency welfare centres have been far lower than expected.
  • Volunteering Canterbury set up a process matching volunteer offers with jobs needed, using Facebook.
  • By mid-week more than 1000 University and Polytechnic students were out shovelling silt or turning up to help a resident pack up for evacuation – again generated by Facebook. 
  • Even the notorious Undie 500 student car race was cancelled in favour of helping in the clean-up.
  • Age Concern fielded spontaneous offers to help old people clean up their homes.

I’m sure there are more good news stories and many unsung heroes.  And none of these stories are unusual in a time of crisis.  Good people are always there to do the right things.  When we are threatened by natural disaster it’s like the spirit of community is a primal instinct, a drive to cluster together and to share resources, to belong in some way. 

Trouble is, real life in the 21st century isn’t like that, and has not been so for a long time, not in the Western world.  We have formalised the idea of community into a government office, complete with ministerial portfolio.  Community-based organisations compete for funding: many are favoured with government contracts to deliver essential services.  The regulatory environment (legal status, health and safety, accountability) keeps NFP management on its toes, dancing to bureaucratic tunes instead of the spirit that gave community organisations their origins.  

The volunteers keep coming, they keep on helping.  For different reasons from times past, and there is plenty of global discussion on trends in volunteering – generational differences, different motivations and expectations, the influence of technology, corporate volunteering, episodic and flexible time commitments.  In this complex environment volunteering is less than a spontaneous offer to ‘help’, and managing volunteers is more than taking all comers and then wondering why they fall by the wayside.  Changes in volunteering means that organisational policies and processes need to be adapted to contemporary contexts.   

In the months ahead there will be much reconstruction in Christchurch on the physical, social and emotional fronts.  There will also be much analysis of the emergency and disaster response.  I hope there will be acknowledgement and praise for the spirit of community evident during the time of crisis, and also some analysis of how and why the surge of spontaneous volunteer assistance worked so well. 

I would like to think that findings will shine a light on the personal qualities and organisational skills demonstrated by leaders of volunteers.  They Know How, and they Can Do.

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