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.


  1. volcan said,

    Sue, I agree with you that ‘volunteerism’ is not an attractive word. At VolCan we have always avoided using it. Here’s an item I posted on our ‘Supporting Volunteers’ blog in August 2006:

    “In an August 1999 article in the Australian Journal on Volunteering Joan Gaunt reminded us that “language makes us what we are. It influences our attitudes and moulds our beliefs.” She pointed out that the word ‘voluntarism’ can lead to “a growing perception that those who do give their time and effort freely are to be ridiculed as trivial, useless and irrelevant. Even the Collins Compact Dictionary makes no bones about it: An ‘ism’ is used as an expression of contempt for a doctrine, system or practice such as communism, sexism or even heroism. ‘Voluntarism’ implies that contempt may be applied to those practitioners who provide service without looking for a reward.” At Volunteering Canterbury we use the term volunteering rather than voluntarism. Which do you prefer?”


    • Sue Hine said,

      Thank you Ruth for agreeing with me! In my posts I dodged pointing out how ‘volunteerism’ appears to be used most widely in Australia and North America. I have not found ‘volunteerism’ used in any New Zealand documents and websites, and nor in Volunteering England material. Susan Ellis looks at the difference between ‘voluntarism’ and ‘volunteerism’ at She acknowledges that ‘voluntarism’ is an older term and recommends the use of ‘volunteerism’. I have not seen interpretations that deem ‘voluntarism’ as an expression of contempt, but your information is a cautionary tale to add to our understanding of ‘volunteering’.


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