December 11, 2011

International Volunteers’ Day – a last blast for the year

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Celebrations, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers at 4:38 am by Sue Hine

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.

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