November 28, 2010

What is Volunteering (1)?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language, Leading Volunteers, Valuing Volunteers at 5:50 am by Sue Hine

I have been puzzling over this question in recent weeks.  It would be easy enough to ask who volunteers: there’ll be lots of demographic statistics to describe the person or population groups, the numbers who volunteer, the hours they put in, and possibly something about the sectors that engage with volunteers.  Describing ‘volunteering’ is another matter.

This week we have a good opportunity to give some thought to the definition of volunteering.  December 5 is International Volunteer Day, designated by United Nations in 1985.  I raise huge cheers for volunteers in New Zealand and around the world, yet continue to worry about the real meaning of volunteering and the way it is interpreted.

I start looking for answers to my questions with the UN Volunteers working definition on ‘Volunteerism’, a so-called ‘big tent’ approach taken by the UN General Assembly in 2001:

  1. It is useful as “service” or “productive work,” not purely enjoyment for its own sake.
  2. It is directed to other people outside the immediate family/household. If it takes place inside the family/household, the action is considered “informal care, “family care,” or “household care,” not volunteering.
  3. Volunteerism must be non-compulsory, thus not coerced or forced externally by law, contract, or other powerful social influences.
  4. While the act of volunteering, the expression of volunteerism, may receive some expense-reimbursement or other financial payments, it is not done primarily for monetary gain, and the payments in monetary terms are usually less than the economic value of the volunteer work done.

Yes, I will accept the first clause.  And acknowledge the UN is seeking to extend the parameters of this definition, in tune with contemporary trends, though not yet refining the wording of these clauses. 

I object to clause 2 on the grounds that it excludes cultural obligations of extended kinship networks.  Attending and participating in Maori hui or tangi, kapa haka events, or a hapu meeting is just as formal as any national or regional meeting convened by other organisations.  In my pakeha culture I object to calling my support of friends and neighbours as ‘informal care’.  I volunteer because these people are part of my community as much as all those other organisations providing services and productive work.  This clause kinda contradicts the spirit of volunteering that has been around for 10,000 years, as the UN summary tells us.

Clause 3 rules out all those people dependent on welfare payments when they need to demonstrate their willingness to look for work.  And it wipes out those sentenced in the justice system to community service.  I object to this clause, because however you come to volunteering, whatever your motivation – the external directive or the spirit of altruism – you are getting involved in an organisation and in a community.  You are exposed to the kind of ‘service’ and ‘productive work’ that might just get you hooked into volunteering and belonging in communities for a long time to come.

Clauses 3 and 4 are problematic, given contemporary trends in ‘volunteering’.  Think corporate volunteering where the goodwill of service can be corrupted because a business wants to do some team-building or to show-case their ‘social responsibility’.  If I am paid for the time I go and do some good work, is this real volunteering?

There are many hearts and minds that have addressed this question before me.  I shall review some of these resources in Part 2 next week.  And in Part 3 I will consider the adulterated usage of ‘volunteerism’. 

In the meantime have a look at how many events for IV Day are happening on Friday or Monday, and how few are scheduled for the due day, December 5.  It’s a Sunday by my calendar.  I hope you know how volunteering goes on 24/7, throughout the year.  I hope you are going to start asking why we cannot do something on a Sunday.  Are we really celebrating volunteering, or are organisations and managers of volunteers giving greater weight to the convenience of normal business hours?

Explanatory note:  This post was generated by a couple of UN papers:  Meaning of the term ‘Volunteerism’ for the SWVR, a working definition, and Paradigm Shifts in the Volunteerism Debate, a Background Paper.


  1. billhickox said,

    I was hoping to read a blog about how to increase the interest of volunteering. I belong to a fraternal organization which was founded on volunteering over a hundred years ago. Those fraternal brothers have passed on and they took the secret of promoting the spirit of volunteering with them. I would like to encourage people in my community to give five hours a week to their community. I would encourage another five hours to taking time for their family especially a family member in a retirement home or who lives all alone. We find ourselves always on the rush to get ahead that we are missing all of the good stuff in life.


    • Sue Hine said,

      I am told recruitment and retention is the single biggest concern for managers of volunteers. Previous posts in the category Valuing Volunteers could be helpful. Do not lose heart – there is plenty of help available, starting with your local community.


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