August 12, 2012

Possession …

Posted in Best Practice, Language, Leading Volunteers tagged at 4:39 am by Sue Hine

… Is a grand novel by A S Byatt, which turned into a pretty good movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow

… Is the title of several other movies, and songs

… Is a word of many different connotations, like:

Possession is nine-tenths of the law.  (That is, the question of ownership is more likely to be settled in a legal context by ‘possession’.)

We have pronouns, my / mine, your / yours, our/ ours and theirs, to indicate ‘possession’ or ‘ownership’ of everything between material property and ‘things’, to inspirited passion and hearts’ desires, to great ideas and intellectual property.

The question is: who owns volunteers?


I am asking because twice in one week I have been at workshops where I was hearing about my volunteers, my board of trustees, my volunteer programme.  That possessive pronoun was working overtime.

Here are my arguments on why we should avoid talking about my volunteers:

  • “Owning” people went out with the demise of feudalism.  Slavery is outlawed too, though we still have to be vigilant re People Trafficking.
  • Volunteers are their own persons; they are exercising their free will to engage with the organisation.
  • They engage with the organisation, not exclusively with the manager of volunteers.
  • Volunteers undertake a range of roles, tasks and responsibilities across the organisation, generally accountable to different section or team managers, not directly to the manager of volunteers.
  • Even where the manager of volunteers is leading a team, this happens on behalf of the organisation.  So better to refer to ‘our’ volunteers, or the more neutral ‘the’ volunteer programme / service.
  • ‘Our volunteers’ still hints of possessiveness, yet embraces volunteering as an integral part of the organisation.  And if you say ‘our volunteers’ with pride in your voice you are saying heaps about your sincere appreciation of their work.
  • Relationships and Communication are key elements of leading volunteers.  Yes, managers of volunteers need to establish personal connections with volunteers, but we also need to set the boundaries of these relationships.  Becoming ‘over-involved’ is a sure route to trouble, and a big no-no for professional reputations and credibility.

So this is my litany.  I am quibbling with a simple linguistic usage.  Yet if we can change a few simple words in our language we can change a whole lot of perceptions and make a world of difference.  Read Alison’s story to see what can happen when you drop my from your references to volunteers.



  1. Jason Marsden said,

    I hear what you’re saying but ‘our’ is no different to ‘my’. It might sound softer, but it’s still possession. And the neutral ‘the’ sounds like no-one cares about them. I’m not sure what the answer is…


    • Sue Hine said,

      I acknowledge your comment re ‘our’, but it’s not quite the same connotation as the exclusiveness of ‘my’.


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