September 19, 2010

Going With the Flow

Posted in A Bigger Picture at 4:29 am by Sue Hine

Volunteerism is like a living organism. It grows, declines and changes in response to the stimuli surrounding it.   Mary Merrill

I don’t much like the word volunteerism.  It sounds clumsy, and suggests there is some deep and meaningful philosophy to be read and understood.  Not so, as dictionary definitions are almost all descriptive of a process rather than enlightenment on meaning.  The word does not seem to have any bearing on what I do as a volunteer – though I will acknowledge a set of beliefs or principles that inform and shape the course of my volunteering. 

However, I have to allow Merrill’s metaphor of volunteerism as an organism that responds to its environment.  Trouble is, ‘the environment’ is a word of many definitions and concepts.  It includes physical and social elements, political and economic influences and all the shades in between.  ‘The environment’ is constantly shifting and volunteering, like the rest of us, has to live with continual change. 

Global conversations have been going on for some time about contemporary trends in volunteering.  You know – the shifting interests of different generations, different motivations and expectations, corporate volunteering, episodic and flexible volunteering, and the huge impact of internet and social media technology.   All around me managers of volunteers are running to catch up.  Organisations who fail to recognise these changes are hard-pressed to maintain their business, and to recruit and retain volunteers.

There have been other changes too over the past 25 years.  Government structural adjustment programmes and devolution of services meant the voluntary sector had to learn how best to present a formal application for funding, and where the best resources for our interests lay.  We had to learn about accountability, not just reporting on how donated funding was spent, but what outcomes were achieved.  Committee members had to step back from operational involvement and learn about governance responsibilities.  There were learning curves for everyone, and flow-on effects for volunteers and their managers.  When the regulatory environment kicked in with health and safety proscriptions, with legal obligations and the employer’s ‘duty of care’ extending to volunteers, organisations were obliged to change long-standing laissez-faire practices. 

The pay-off was in securing contracts with government for the provision of services.  We are now a flourishing industry, a Third Sector, right up there with the Public and Private Sectors.  The VAVA Project (see reckoned annual accounts did not show the added value provided by volunteers.   Statistics NZ has got that sorted now:

 Non-profit institutions contributed 2.6% to New Zealand’s GDP in 2004.  When volunteer labour is included the GDP contribution rises to 4.9%.  

Wow! That’s equivalent to the building and construction sector; it’s greater than tourism brings into the country.  And wow, again!  It all happens because there is a manager, a leader or a coordinator, paid or unpaid, who keeps the volunteers on track, keeps them coming, ensuring a worthwhile experience.  

Management of volunteers has moved with the times too.  The basic processes of recruitment, recognition, rewarding volunteers and renewal are well understood, if not always applied.  The word ‘profession’ is adopted for the occupation; there are codes of practice and national standards available – though New Zealand has not got there yet.  There are opportunities for training and education at all levels, including distance and on-line learning programmes.  We have lifted our game. 

But it’s a longer harder road to lift our profile, to get some investment in and recognition of management of volunteers.  Despite the writing and publishing and on-going promotion by global leaders the message at the masthead of this post is not getting through. 

 That is why the Volunteering NZ sponsored Development Project for Management of Volunteers was started.  That is why November 5 is marked as International Day for Managers of Volunteers.  When the Project Team no longer needs to meet, and when we no longer need to mark our existence on a special day, then Management of Volunteers will have come of age.

1 Comment »

  1. DJ Cronin said,

    Well said! 🙂


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