March 25, 2012
It’s that time of the year again. The annual awards and accolades for volunteer service are being handed out and hitting the headlines.
A few weeks ago New Zealanders of the Year were announced, and the Kiwibank Local Heroes awards are percolating around the country right now. In Christchurch 140 groups and individuals have been recognised as Earthquake Heroes. Volunteers who helped with the clean-up from the Rena oil-spill in the Bay of Plenty recently enjoyed a beach party. This weekend it is the turn to learn the winners of Trustpower National Community Awards.
I have not counted how many people are standing tall and proud. I am observing instead how volunteer service is valued and appreciated all around New Zealand, in small and large communities, urban and rural. Indeed both Kiwibank and Trustpower sponsor awards for a whole community or community group, and citations illustrate just how much collective volunteering can achieve.
The categories for these awards are not restrictive; it seems volunteers in all population groups, sector interests, and social issues can have equal chances of nomination and selection. There are few nominees in paid positions, and even fewer mentions of the major non-profit organisations. Mostly the awards go to individuals associated with informal groups, community-based and community-led, or to the collective efforts of a community organisation that would otherwise not make national headlines.
There are no Managers or Coordinators of volunteers in the line-up, but there is a great deal of leadership evident in the citations of achievements. Words like ‘passion’, ‘commitment’ and ‘inspiring’ appear quite frequently. I suspect managers of volunteers could find something to learn from these community leaders.
The best volunteering story of the year has to be that of Sam Johnson, leader of the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) which took on the muddy job of cleaning up liquefaction following the Christchurchearthquake of September 2010, and again in February 2011. I am sure he did not set out to demonstrate the art of managing spontaneous volunteering and the effectiveness of the SVA, nor to seek the crown of Young New Zealander of the Year. The achievements of Sam and his team are remarkable, and the international recognition that has followed is well-deserved. The full account of how SVA was established and what it did is available through the on-line journal e-volunteerism, here.
Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to the people who did the nominating. The awards do not and cannot account for all the volunteers who keep on keeping on giving their time, energy and skills to their communities. But the awards sure draw attention to what volunteers achieve, to the spirit of community, and to inspiring leadership.
March 18, 2012
I’ve never been a fan of voluntourism. Yes, I know it is a growth industry but I worry about who benefits. The definition from a comprehensive website suggests this kind of travel is all for the tourist:
The conscious, seamlessly integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination and the best, traditional elements of travel — arts, culture, geography, history and recreation — in that destination.
I have also heard the stories of people lured to foreign parts on a ‘do-good’ mission, only to find their time and energies exploited in tasks that do not match their skills and interests. Worse, in my view, is the easy come-and-go of the voluntraveller with limited contribution to the development needs of local communities or organisations. It convolutes the purpose of volunteering, and when a payment is required for the experience I have to ask if this is still ‘volunteering’. Of course many voluntour agencies take a responsible approach, offering ‘reality-check’ information and a placement process. Research studies find positive outcomes for the volunteers in terms of self and career development, but there is little recorded evidence of the impact of volunteering in communities where participants are placed. And that’s what should matter, specially when governments in developed nations promote or support international volunteering as part of their aid programmes.
As for micro-volunteering – I have yet to get my head around how it works and to add it to my lexicon of volunteering. Yes, I know it’s convenient for the volunteer and allows for innovative ways to support non-profit organisations. Yet, again, I wonder about the cost-benefit outcomes. Can the value of a short-term, bite-sized volunteer task really be worth the management input to make micro-volunteering happen? Volunteers do not come for free!
Well – I happened to do a spot of micro-volunteering, as a voluntourist, during recent travel in Laos.
I knew about Big Brother Mouse before I left New Zealand, and paying the office a visit was on my list of things to do. Big Brother Mouse (BBM) is a not-for-profit, Lao-owned project, with Lao staff. Its focus is literacy, publishing books and distributing them around the country, particularly to highland villages. There were BBM books to be found at night markets and other places round the country, and on one remote mountain road a van sporting the BBM logo went past.
In Luang Prabang I expressed interest in helping young adults with English conversation practice. That was going to be my micro-voluntourist effort: two hours chatting with a stranger from another culture. I was assigned to a young woman who wanted English skills so she could better communicate with tourist visitors at her workplace. We got on just fine, covered a lot of ground beyond the basic personal and family information, and two hours went by in a flash.
One small bit of experience does not answer my questions, but at least I have learned how it works, for one organisation in a developing country. What made it work in voluntourism terms is the explicit information on the website, all geared for visitors to Laos who could be prospective donors and/or volunteers. On site, staff were clear and firm about expectations. And I am sorry this meeting was a one-off, because it would be good to follow the young woman’s development. Extending volunteer commitment is one of the spin-offs of micro-volunteering, but it will not happen this time. I wonder too if there are any records of progress in language development – is the experience useful for the participant? As the volunteer I introduced myself to office staff and presented some relevant credentials but no details were recorded, nor references required. (This type of volunteering would surely be subject to some risk management back home.)
So – I have had a taste of two unfamiliar brands of volunteering. The task process (relationship- building) was familiar, and it was the context that was different. I will not be chasing further experience in either voluntourism or micro-volunteering, but I will be keeping an open mind and an eye on opportunities closer to home.