April 24, 2011

Volunteering and Culture

Posted in Language, Valuing Volunteers at 12:42 am by Sue Hine

“Volunteering is culturally-driven.”

Well – there’s a statement of the bleeding obvious!   It’s a nice piece of jargon, possibly including some PC elements. We can nod our heads and agree with the profound sentiments, and then move on to the next item on the agenda.

We all know what the statement means, don’t we?

And that is where I pause for reflection. When I unpack the meaning of the words I discover how jargon is not always what it seems.

At face-value the statement says volunteering is an important part of our culture. We participate in volunteering activities because ‘it’s what you do’ as a member of your community and to participate in a wider society. In Aotearoa/New Zealand there are many cultures, so volunteering can be driven by different cultural elements.

For example, Maori concepts of mahi aroha describe volunteering as “work performed out of love, sympathy or caring and through a sense of duty”. It is a way to fulfil cultural obligations to the wider collective, to enhance individual sense of identity, and to maintain culture and traditions. In the Maori world view, “personal wellbeing depends, both immediately and ultimately on the wellbeing of the community as a whole”.  (Read more here)

My pakeha experience in decades of volunteering indicates some affinity with this cultural approach.  In later years I learned  more about volunteer motivation. The basic response to ‘why?’ was ‘I want to help’, and people were not always clear on where this helping interest came from or why it was important to offer help. Sometimes I would hear about a sense of duty or obligation to the local community, or sympathy and caring for the services offered, or maybe simply giving back to an organisation that had been personally supportive. You could say these drivers were more ‘social’ than ‘cultural’. Yet somewhere along the line social behaviours derive from cultural beliefs and values. Our individual sense of identity, regardless of cultural origins, seems to rest on belonging to a social group in communities.

The evidence is there in the volunteer response to Queensland floods and Christchurch earthquakes. When the chips are down we are looking out for our friends and neighbours, putting up our hands to help out, wanting to be ‘useful’ and to find that sense of belonging. That’s the ‘community spirit’ that has been widely extolled, along with the frequent use of the word ‘resilience’.  And you don’t get resilience by going it alone.

I hope you have seen the big But coming. You and I might be fully aware of volunteering as a culturally-driven enterprise. Government and business sectors appear to see volunteering as an industry to be exploited.

Think social service contracts where community organisations deliver services on the cheap, constrained by health and safety regulations, financial obligations, risk management, regular auditing – which turn organisations into mini-government agencies. (And some not-so-mini.) We have lost the opportunity for creative enterprise that built so many of our volunteer organisations. Some would say we have forsaken our origins.

Think corporate sponsorship and volunteering which could be more about corporate self-promotion than real commitment to the cause of your organisation.

In this post-modern / anything-goes world my cultural beliefs and principles are ignored and abandoned in favour of what best suits politics and economics. Please – I do not want to be counted as an also-ran in the ‘Third Sector’, and I would really like to get away from the ‘Non-’ labels of non-profit, non-government institutions – as though we are non-existent.

Volunteers (and their managers) could do so much more for our organisations, our communities and our social well-being if they had half the chance of Team NZ. The syndicate has just secured $36m of government funding to make a bid for the yachting prize of the America’s Cup in 2013. International kudos wins over empty Foodbank shelves, over the issues of child abuse and domestic violence, and what a network of organisations could do to keep our communities hanging together.

Statistics NZ can tell us a lot about who volunteers and what for and how often, and what volunteers are worth to the national economy. The figures are impressive, but I will be taking a lot more notice when the analysis starts referring to outcomes of volunteer contributions to cultural and social well-being.

The moral of this story is, if you have not got it already, is:

Volunteering is culturally-driven. Volunteering is also a taonga that needs greater respect and resourcing.


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