December 17, 2010

The Season of Goodwill

Posted in Good news stories at 12:57 am by Sue Hine

Whether we celebrate Christmas as a Christian festival or not, we cannot avoid the commercial hype of the season.  The purveyors of good cheer urge us to indulge the spirit of spending up large, so they can stay in business and maybe keep you in a job for the coming year.

It is also the time of year when the good news stories are paraded in the news media.  Here is a sample catalogue of what is on offer beyond wrapping parcels and preparing food for all the visitors, or waiting for the credit card bill.  

  • The Great New Zealand Santa Run happened on Wednesday last week, raising funds for KidsCan.  Around 600 people paid to run a circuit all dressed up in Santa gear for the benefit of disadvantaged kids in low-decile schools. 
  •  In Wellington you can go vote for the best decorated Christmas tree.  This is another fundraiser, and among the 25 you can vote for is the entry from Volunteer Wellington, covered in stars with stories about volunteers who have contributed to the community sector.  
  • “A stitch in time for Christmas” is the theme for a bunch of Wellington quilters who have given their creative endeavours to children in hospital and to the neo-natal unit. 
  • There are plenty of opportunities to open my cheque-book instead of buying things to put under the Christmas Tree.  I can buy a goat, some school-books, a training course for farmers, or three ducks, or some trees – all in the name of international aid to people who need a leg-up, rather than a hand-out. 
  • Then there is the Goodwill Express.  Kiwi Rail is collecting donations for the Salvation Army’s foodbank.  You don’t have to be a passenger – just bring along your non-perishable food items to any station along the way.   
  • Gen Z is introduced to volunteering.  School-kids are out carolling at Rest Homes and Hospitals.  Or they are participating in the Love Your Coast campaign, helping at a clean-up on our beaches.  Decked out in sunhats and gloves, they are bringing in huge bags of shore-line detritus, and maybe learning to care for their environment.   
  • The true spirit of Christmas is evident in the massive organisation of dinners for people who live alone, who cannot enjoy the togetherness of a family gathering.  Many people who are not regular volunteers offer their time and energies at this time.

In these examples I have mixed up volunteering with philanthropy, the business of donating money.  Purists will declare giving money is absolutely not out of the same box as volunteering.  True – but is it not the spirit of giving – your time and skills, or your hard cash – that underlies both philanthropy and volunteering? 

I am off-air now until mid-January.  That’s Happy New Year time, and an opportunity to face the reality of resolutions!

December 12, 2010

What is Volunteering (3)?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language at 1:15 am by Sue Hine

Volunteering.  Volunteerism.  What’s in a word?  Linguistic philosophers would have plenty to say.  In this post I try to unpack the meaning of ‘volunteerism’, a word I have said previously I do not much care for.  

The English language is renowned for its adaptability and for adopting new words from other languages.  English speakers are also good at creating new words, and new shades of meanings for old words.  ‘Volunteerism’ is not so bad in itself.  But in the words of a slogan currently promoted in New Zealand: it’s not what we are doing with the word, it’s how we are using it.  That is what I am grizzling about.

What’s in a word?

  • Marxism / capitalism / socialism / liberalism / fascism = political ideologies expressed in the practices of various political parties or groups
  • Racism / ethnocentrism = negative judgement of others on the basis of colour, culture, creed
  • Buddhism / Hinduism / Taoism = religious/spiritual ideologies, beliefs and practices
  • Feminism = an ideal translated into a social movement to gain equal rights for women
  • Volunteerism

There are a thousand other –ism words I could add, but I think you have got the picture by now.  ‘–ism’ is a suffix absorbed into English from ancient Greek to form abstract nouns of action, state, condition or doctrine.   For linguistic scholars the suffix ‘-ism’ indicates a principle, a belief or movement.

So ‘volunteerism’ refers to an abstraction.  It is not something we can touch and feel and grab hold of.   We cannot see ‘volunteerism’ in action, though we might observe its denotations and attributes in a million different ways.  ‘Volunteerism’ is an idea, an ideal, a social movement that reverberates around the world.  Last week I referred to ‘the common good’ and ‘Civil Society’.  ‘Volunteerism’ is right up there with these concepts.

But that’s not how I find ‘volunteerism’ being used in everyday parlance.  Volunteerism is translated as a term to describe a major industry.  Well yes, volunteerism is an economic force to be reckoned with, as government statistics will illustrate. And when you start running an accountant’s fingers over volunteer goodwill and what you think ‘good society’ might mean you are going to get the figures that say Big Business.

Trouble is, we want to define our product, to put it into a marketable package.  As with any industry we want to attract our customers (prospective volunteers, the investors), to establish our niche within communities and especially volunteerism’s contribution to service delivery.  We also need to court our donors, and do the hard yards of negotiation for service contracts with governments.   We have to demonstrate in concrete terms what we are about. So we have to keep searching for the one true definition of ‘volunteer’, of ‘volunteering’ and ‘volunteerism’, and we keep following false trails, down garden paths that end up in the tangled bush. 

‘Volunteerism’ is often used interchangeably with ‘volunteering’.  ‘Volunteering’ is a doing word, describing all that stuff you can do as a volunteer.  It’s a kind of carpet-bag word, because there are so many ways of doing ‘volunteering’.  Which puts the word up there alongside abstract notions of ‘volunteerism’, despite a claim by SWVR (UN’s State of the World’s Volunteerism Report) that “the act of volunteering [is] the expression of volunteerism”.  For SWVR, ‘volunteerism’ is a referent: “social behaviour undertaken by people … useful as ‘service’ or ‘productive work’”.  And ‘volunteering’, in my book, is also an action-based referent. 

In untangling these words there is a risk of creating a cat’s cradle too complex to follow.  Lewis Carroll knew all about this:

When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

Like I said last week, there is no last word, no one definition.  That is the nature of language – we can make words mean different things, and meanings will change over time or as we choose to adapt the usage of the word.  The really important thing to remember is to know what we mean when we use words like ‘volunteering’ and ‘volunteerism’ and to be able to communicate what we mean.

Endnote: Please, if you are still reading, go see Susan Ellis’ Hot Topic for December 2010 – Word ‘Volunteer’ can Reveal, Conceal, or Confuse.  Read the responses too.  Then figure what ‘volunteering’ or ‘volunteerism’ means for you. Discovering meaning is the really important bit.

December 5, 2010

What is Volunteering (2)

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language, Managers Matter, Valuing Volunteers at 12:16 am by Sue Hine

Back in 2001 we celebrated the first International Year of Volunteers.  Ten years on and we are gearing up to have another great shindig, kicked off by the IAVE conference in Singapore, January 2011.  And I hope you have not forgotten that today (December 5) is the UN International Day for Volunteers.                              

Back in 2001 the slogan for IYV was Ordinary People doing the Extraordinary.  I was a pretty new manager of volunteers at the time, and in my organisation I could not help but see how the volunteers were Extraordinary People doing the Ordinary.  They came from high-flying corporate jobs; they were professional people with all sorts of academic letters after their name.  Many others were those whose name will never be in lights, yet can be known as ‘salt-of-the-earth’ people.  Their commonality was a heap of beliefs and principles in tune with the organisation’s expressed values, and a commitment to their community.  Because in serving cups of tea, in dishing out meals, in meeting with people as people not patients, these volunteers were going out of their way to enhance the quality of life for a person who did not have much life left.

Can volunteering get much better than that?  That’s not for me to say.  But I want to hear the cheers for volunteers, loud and clear, on today of all days.                                                                               

 Because the art of managing volunteers is entwined with the meaning of ‘volunteering’.  Our understanding of the term, how we interpret it, will impact on what we do and how we act as managers.  So I have looked around, done the web-searches, to see what other people say about ‘volunteering’. 

European Volunteer Centre (!-EN.html) acknowledges a vast array of notions, definitions and traditions concerning volunteering.  The bottom line in understanding ‘volunteering’ is the mutual benefit to society as a whole and to the individual volunteers.   Volunteering is about strengthening social cohesion.

Volunteering England’s Information Sheet on Definitions of Volunteering claims volunteering is an important expression of citizenship and fundamental to democracy.  It is freely undertaken and not for financial gain; it can be formal or informal; and there are many different reasons for volunteering.  (See

So ‘volunteering’ is linked with concepts of Civil Society, that stuff of associations, the public space for debate, and for community development.  As Volunteering Auckland puts it: volunteering is an activity “for the common good” (

And yet…… Volunteering Auckland has got some great descriptors of what volunteering is all about and the benefits of volunteering, but they too are stuck on the ‘free will’ and ‘unpaid’ concepts associated with volunteering.  There has to be a way of expanding our understanding to include people who come from different directions – court orders, welfare directed job seekers and the corporate sensibilities for social responsibility.  Because the roles they undertake, the tasks they accomplish are all for ‘the common good’.  Aren’t they?

A long time ago I read a statement that proclaimed “defining the nature of a concept shows only the narrowness of the definer”.   Perhaps Andy Fryar was reading the same page, because his Hot Topic of July 2005 ( argued against “hard and fast definitions, which then become ‘gospel’ for the next decade or more”.  Given contemporary trends – the demographics, the technology impacting on volunteering, changing patterns in volunteer commitment  – it does not make sense to put ‘volunteering’ into a straitjacket.  It’s worth repeating the quote from Mary Merrill in my blog of September 19: Volunteerism is like a living organism. It grows, declines and changes in response to the stimuli surrounding it. 

I guess this could be the challenge for IYV+10.  And for managers of volunteers around the world, and for the leaders of organisations involving volunteers.  To adapt, to change our thinking, to discover new meanings – which could be as simple as going back to basics.

So now I am going to hoist the best description of volunteering on to the flagpole of December 5’s International Day for Volunteers:

Volunteering is an expression of active citizenship, giving, and value to community wellbeing

Note it is a description, not a definition.  The high-level concepts in this statement can by-pass my objections to ‘free will’ and ‘unpaid’.  It is broad enough to be inclusive of different cultural practices.  It is simple, straightforward, an ideology that resonates with its origins without constraining future developments.  And it comes from Volunteering New Zealand (

Of course there is no last word.  I have added a number of other references to the Resource Page for those keen to explore further.  And stay tuned for next week’s look at the word ‘volunteerism’.