September 2, 2012

What every volunteer needs to understand

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:32 am by Sue Hine

You are never too old to learn, or to be reminded of the meaning of volunteering. No, not the definitions: I am talking about being re-awakened to the nature and philosophy of volunteering.

A few weeks ago my inbox received the text of a presentation at a VolunteerFest in Victoria (Australia). It was not more worthy praise for volunteers, nor about the psycho-social motivations for volunteering, and certainly not a piece of puffery about volunteers being the glue of society, the salt of the earth and all those other high-flown phrases. And yet it was all of those things.

The author / presenter is vivian Hutchinson who has been a mover-and-shaker around community development and social enterprises in New Zealand for a very long time. He is also a thinker, and his writing has made me sit up and recognise a few more truths about volunteering. Here’s my take on what vivian is saying, about the key triggers to understanding the nature of volunteering.

Citizenship: The reductionist pressures of political and economic exigencies turn us into ciphers, as voters or consumers. It erodes (along with a number of other factors) our sense of community. Hutchinson says:

This is a reduction of our humanity, and it is a cultural loss … because this strips away our ability to speak authentically to each other about the craft of working together  for the common good.

When our sense of citizenship wanes the strands of Civil Society are weakened. It means we take less interest in government and local body elections. It gets so much harder to protect and preserve our communities for future generations.

Engagement: In managing volunteers we like to talk about ‘engaging’ volunteers, rather than ‘recruiting’ them. Hutchinson’s criteria for engaging volunteers are Choice, Without Constraint, and Without Expectation of Reward. Of course! No question. Until you pick up on his take on Generosity.


The key economic resource being provided by the volunteer is not your spare time, and it is not your free labour. Nor is it any personal desperation for connection or participation.  The key resource here is your generosity. And the irony is that — while being generous — it is important that you do not to give away your awareness of its value. [emphasis added]

I wonder how many volunteers ever think of ‘value’ when they give so freely their time, skills and energies. There is much evidence of selflessness in volunteering: I just want to give, without understanding what is given, and what yet might be received. Right now there is a counterpoint emerging in the efforts to measure a return on investment in delivery of community social services. Yes, evidence of effectiveness and outcomes and results is important, but monetising volunteer contribution is a sure way to diminish and degrade everything that volunteering and citizenship represents. Which leads to Hutchinson’s last point:

A felt sense of Community:

The generosity of volunteers builds links of connection and resilience, and a felt sense of community — all of which are critical assets for hard times. The challenge here is to really value these assets, and to see our generosity as something that is not just nice, but it is indeed critical.

Now you can see how the elements of Community, Generosity, Engagement and Citizenship are all interwoven. We need the whole package, and must not allow bits to be siphoned off for other interests. As encouragement I am noticing increased promotion of ‘neighbourliness’ and ‘community resilience’, not altogether prompted by natural disasters and the incidence of crime and violence.

One more quote is directed to the leaders and managers of volunteers in community organisations:

The leadership act here is to remember that generosity is generated through invitation, not dictate. You are gardeners in a voluntary landscape. Your job is to grow the active citizenship that makes up this landscape, and to foster the community assets that emerge from this deeper engagement.

Go the gardeners! Go dig for the riches in our communities, nourish the soil for volunteers, and reap the harvest of active citizens and community-builders participating in the process of change.

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