April 1, 2012

“Volunteer Associations”

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , , at 4:33 am by Sue Hine

Last week’s review of national awards honouring volunteers pointed up the extent of voluntary activity outside the mainstream not-for-profit institutions, and generally beyond a formal volunteer programme.  I was reminded of my long ago introduction to sociology, and early studies of New Zealand society.

Forty years ago I was reading about New Zealanders as ‘a nation of joiners’.  Research in 1970 in a country town of 14,000 people found there were 200 organisations, and 60% of the population belonged to one or more of them.  You could find similar patterns all over the country, and I was part of them.

Forty years ago academic research and writing never mentioned ‘volunteers’ or ‘volunteering’, despite the existence of health and social service organisations that had been active for many years, largely supported by volunteers.  Organisations were lumped together as “voluntary associations”, regardless of purpose or function.  Or they were pressure groups, sometimes regarded with suspicion by dismissive politicians. Our open political system, said one writer, “has what amounts to an unrecognised fourth estate” [after legislature, judiciary and administration].  Voluntary participation in communities was surely taken for granted.

At last count (2004) there were 97,000 non-profit organisations in New Zealand.  More recent studies (2008) estimate that 67% of the non-profit workforce are volunteers, and that more than one third of the population aged 10 and over volunteer each year.  It seems we are still a nation of joiners, though under changed circumstances.

Over the past twenty-five years Government has devolved responsibility for delivering many services to community-based organisations, and volunteers can play a large part in these.  Government organisations like Sport NZ (formerly SPARC) and the Department of Conservation are directly engaged with volunteers and supporting volunteering.  A formal relationship accord between government and communities of Aotearoa NewZealand was signed in 2010.

Terminology shifted too.  We absorbed new labels and acronyms: non-governmental organisation (NGO); non-profit institution (NPI); and not-for-profit (NFP).  Collectively, community-based organisations are tagged the Third Sector.

The focus on service delivery and ‘consumers’ and on accountability brought an attendant raft of regulations, eroding the real virtues of volunteer-involving organisations.  Their capacity for developing creative solutions and experimenting with new practice methodologies was hard to fit into the new environment, even though volunteering and volunteers remained an essential part of an organisation’s operations.  Neither did the new model enhance belonging and social connectedness in local communities.

“Voluntary associations” never really went away, but somehow dropped under the radar.  We are still joiners, because we are hard-wired to the idea of community, to social connectedness.  The philosophy of community is as old as – well – communities, and history is chequered with examples of community-led development and change on social, political and economic fronts.

So I should not be surprised to observe some winds of change over the past decade.  Concepts of Civil Society and social capital are re-surfacing in mainstream discussion and actions.  Social entrepreneurs are showing us the way to create sustainable change in our communities.  We can even put a positive spin on NGOs by re-naming them Social Profit Organisations.  And wouldn’t you know it: the theme for this year’s Volunteer Awareness Week is Building Communities through Volunteering.

There is much to encourage us in the present state of volunteering.  National and local awards for volunteers are evidence of a depth of experience and commitment to communities of all kinds.  “Voluntary Associations” deserve more air-time because their activities can build flourishing communities.

No doubt the next forty years will record more social and political change. I am in no doubt that “voluntary associations” will participate in that change, if not leading the charge.

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