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’.

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