December 11, 2011
On Monday December 5 I was wandering around the Firth of Thames, surveying shell banks created and shifted by tides for thousands of years. I was also getting acquainted with the birds that inhabit these tidal flats, the shore birds like oystercatchers, the heron waders, and the migrating birds collecting here to take off in March. Here is a meeting point for the godwits that will fly non-stop for more than 10,000 kilometres, every year, until their feeding grounds in northeast Asia are usurped for concrete developments.
So I missed out on functions celebrating International Volunteers’ Day where I might have dressed up to enjoy a mayoral reception and more. What I got instead was the enthusiasm of a couple of volunteers at the Bird Hide willing to talk and to get me better informed about the environment and bird behaviour, and which bird was which. They did well, balancing the wisdom of age with the enthusiasm of youth. Well really, they were both enthusiastic.
We did not talk about volunteering, the importance of good management, nor the politics of the community sector and NGOs. And I forgot to remind them to sit up with pride for the occasion of the day.
There were of course plenty of celebratory functions for the day, held for public and organisational recognition of volunteering and the contributions made to community well-being, societal infrastructure, and services to individuals and involvement in all sectors of the community. And there were lots of public proclamations on Facebook and via press releases declaring appreciation of volunteers. The one that caught my eye was a tribute to the volunteers who made up the governance of an organisation – that does not happen very often.
This year IV Day is also significant for being the wrap for IYV+10, and for the United Nations publication of State of the World’s Volunteerism Report 2011.
The report was launched by Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and now Administrator for United Nations Development Programme. Her remarks to the UN General Assembly remind us of the universality of volunteering values: the desire to contribute to the common good, out of free will and in a spirit of solidarity, without expectation of material reward. Indeed, the strength of volunteering is a sure sign of people power, the power to make a difference, to change the world.
The overview of SWVR is compelling reading, from the philosophic statement in the first paragraph:
Volunteerism is a basic expression of human relationships. It is about people’s need to participate in their societies and to feel that they matter to others. We strongly believe that the social relationships intrinsic to volunteer work are critical to individual and community well-being. The ethos of volunteerism is infused with values including solidarity, reciprocity, mutual trust, belonging and empowerment, all of which contribute significantly to quality of life.
Then we get a down-to-earth reality check. I am not surprised that Helen Clark notes “the strong links between volunteering and peace and human development are still not adequately recognised”. Turning high-flown ideals into action has always been a challenge. The SWVR claims:
While recognition of volunteerism has been growing in recent times, especially since the United Nations proclaimed 2001 the International Year of Volunteers (IYV), the phenomenon is still misconstrued and undervalued. All too often, the strong links are overlooked between volunteer activity on the one hand and peace and human development on the other. It is time for the contribution of volunteerism to the quality of life, and to wellbeing in a wider sense, to be understood as one of the missing components of a development paradigm that still has economic growth at its core.
Volunteering ‘misconstrued and undervalued’? The SWVR is taking a global perspective, yet even in my small corner of the world there are signs that volunteering is valued more for its economic contribution than as “a renewable resource and vital component of the social capital of every nation”.
Too often the functions for IV Day can turn into a gathering of those who rule and run volunteer organisations. Too often the volunteers get patronised with pats on the head (tapu in many cultures): affirmations of ‘being wonderful’ that might polish a volunteer halo are of much lesser order than evidence that ‘what you did made X amount of difference’.
Volunteering has gained strength in the past ten years through internet communication, corporate volunteering, the self-help responses to environmental disasters and increased opportunities for people who want to ‘help’. Management of volunteers has been developed and enhanced through formal training programmes, establishing national and international associations. There is also a huge increase in published research on volunteering, which means there is no end to learning, especially for managers and leaders of volunteers.
Volunteering will survive, because it is in our nature as social beings, though the future is uncharted territory. As yet there is no ordained IYV+20 to set goals for the next decade. As the godwits fly the world in their annual migrations, so does volunteering go global. And like the godwits we all need to travel a world that gives us due and safe passage.
This post is my sign-off for 2011. Mid-January I shall review the wish-list I made at the beginning of the year.
December 4, 2011
“Get them while they’re young” is a line from the musical Evita, interposed on a paean to ‘Santa Evita’ sung by a chorus of children. It is also a line spun in a religious context and a strategy exploited by many a commercial and consumer enterprise.
So I should not be surprised to learn if you have not been exposed to volunteering by the time you are 15 you are not likely to get engaged as a volunteer either now or later. That bit of hearsay gave me pause to think about my own history of volunteering and where it came from.
These days the evidence shows more and more young people are volunteering, in all sorts of spheres, and they are not always following the model of their parents as I did.
In Australia youth volunteering (aged 18-24) doubled in the ten years to 2006, to 32%. A US report (2005) found the rate for ages 12-18 was 55%, more than one and a half times the adult rate of 29%. In England only 24% of 16-24 year olds are engaged in formal volunteering, according to a 2009 review. The rate in New Zealand for the year ending March 2009 was just 27%, for the age group 15-24 years.
Statistics such as these offer bald information and clearly international comparisons on this data would be odious. What needs to be noted is the increasing interest by youth in volunteering: in New Zealand this age group is anecdotally claimed to be the fastest rising volunteer demographic. Over the past six months Volunteer Wellington finds the number of volunteer seekers aged 14-29 have outnumbered other age groups more than 2:1, and 50% of these volunteers were students.
Alongside this burgeoning volunteer population there is a welter of related research, conferences, and reviews, national and international. There are presentations from young people themselves on what they expect, where their interests lie and how they want to be engaged. There is also an ongoing blog written by young people for young volunteers.
They come with different strengths and expectations from older generations. Being technologically-gifted they expect all information and communication to be available on-line. Sometimes they prefer to work in groups or to be involved in time-limited, task-focused activities. They want opportunities to get work-related experience, something to put on their CVs. Yet they can also have altruistic reasons for volunteering, and a sense of civic responsibility.
The volunteer work of young people can be as varied as programmes that engage older people. A study on student involvement showed nearly half worked as a mentor, coach, or counsellor with youth. Sports and cultural activities attracted a significant proportion, and close behind were health and emergency services.
For the leader of volunteers and the manager of a volunteer programme here is another dynamic to add to the business of harnessing the skills and energies brought by volunteers to the organisation. Be warned, youth volunteers will not tolerate being patronised. There is much to admire in their enthusiasm and commitment, and in their achievements. Organisations in New Zealand, like Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), CanTeen (supporting teenage cancer patients) and YouthLine, are obvious standouts, yet young people will be found volunteering in a whole lot of other places as well.
There is much to encourage and entice youth volunteers at Volunteering Otago, and a really great Wish List at Volunteering Hawkes Bay. What we want, they say, is: Flexibility, Experience, Incentives, Legitimacy and Variety; accessing volunteering needs to be Easy; like everyone else Appreciation and Support is important; and most of all we love to Laugh! Go check out the details, and find how engaging young people as volunteers is pretty much the same as for other populations.
Get them while they are young, to open opportunities for learning skills and about self, about community, about service, and about the life-long gains that volunteering can bring. Better still, get them to show you a thing or two about different ways of volunteering and new approaches to existing volunteer programmes.
[If you think I have tossed in too many hyperlinks here, it is simply an indication of the wealth of material and information available on engaging young people in your organisation.]
And have a great day celebrating the International Volunteers’ Day on December 5, whatever your age!