December 10, 2012

Obligatory Volunteering

Posted in Language, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , at 3:21 am by Sue Hine

I dug myself a bit of a hole recently when I referred to ‘obligatory volunteering’ during a workshop presentation.  I was using a collective term to include internships, court imposed community sentences, and conditions for receiving welfare payments.  Woops – ‘obligation’ and ‘volunteering’ in the same breath is too much like coercion, and I was presented very smartly with examples to demonstrate that ‘obligatory volunteering’ is a contradiction in terms.

It seems I have challenged the accepted principles of volunteering: that it is unpaid activity undertaken by choice, for the direct benefit of the community or organisation and to the volunteer.   So now I am ‘obliged’ to justify my choice of words.

  • Volunteer Internships with community organisations can be a training requirement for many professional occupations, or for gaining university ‘credits’.  Volunteering England describes a volunteer internship as

a time-limited volunteer placement that allows a person to gain practical experience by undertaking an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment, individuals or groups other than(or in addition to) close relatives.

  •  Hours of Community Service, as sentenced by the Courts.  There is certainly some compulsion here, in terms of penalties for non-compliance.  But the work is intended to benefit the community and it is unpaid.
  • Welfare beneficiaries: in New Zealand volunteering is encouraged as “a great way to get work experience, learn new skills and help a community”.  But it is also clear that welfare payments are subject to obligations that come with sanctions.

Volunteer Centres can take a lead role in the placement of people coming to volunteering by these different routes.  A purist may argue there is limited or no free will in these contexts, yet people still retain the choice of what sort of work, and which organisation they will work for.  Indeed, they can come knocking at the door to ask about opportunities.  Certainly there is mutual benefit to both volunteer and organisation and many continue volunteering long after the external ‘obligations’ have been met.

Are these conditions so very different from engaging volunteers who come from other directions with a different range of motivations?

Management practice for a volunteer programme may require volunteers to sign a contract related to their work.  There are plenty of codes of practice describing the boundaries of volunteering.  Or there are Rights and Responsibilities charters where expected ‘obligations’ are spelled out for both volunteers and the organisation.

These measures do not carry the weight of a legal contract, nor are they like the marketing ploy of “free quote, no obligation”.  They are simply the means to protect volunteers and the organisation, and service users.

There’s another sense of ‘obligation’ that helps broaden thinking about volunteering.  It’s that age-old moral code of social responsibility – our obligations to each other in our communities.  Survival depended on interdependence in pre-historic times, and still does, in the face of war, famine or natural disaster.  An obligation can also be termed a promise, a duty and a moral commitment.

When you think about it, ‘obligatory volunteering’ comes in different forms and is but one strand of a wide range of activities that we call volunteering.

So let’s be expansive in our interpretations of volunteering, as encouraged by a UNV / Civicus publication Broadening Civic Space through voluntary action: 

a wide range of activities, including traditional forms of mutual aid and self-help, formal service delivery and other forms of civic participation, undertaken of free will, for the general public good and where monetary reward is not the principal motivating factor (UN 2001).

I reckon this scope allows me to include ‘obligatory volunteering’ in the discourse.  I think it is quite useful as a figure of speech to apply to some forms of volunteering.


This post is the last for 2012.  I’ll be back with New Year reflections late in January.

December 2, 2012

What Do Volunteers Want?

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Leadership, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 4:10 am by Sue Hine


It’s coming to your place this week, this annual splurge to celebrate volunteers and volunteering.  It’s a day established back in 1985 by United Nations General Assembly to:

Promote the work of volunteer-involving organisations and individual volunteers   

Promote their contributions to development at local, national and international levels.

There’ll be civic functions and a ministerial speech or two, maybe presentations of service awards, and lots of nice words said about volunteers and their work.  We can say thank you forever, and of course we do that a lot more than one day a year.

Big question: Will International Volunteer Day really be about promoting the work of volunteers and their contribution?  Saying thank you is not the same as doing a marketing programme.

Second question: Has anyone thought about what volunteers really want?  Has anyone asked volunteers this question?  Not why they volunteer, but what volunteers think is important to get the best out of their volunteering.  Because in the midst of all the applause for volunteers on December 5 I know there are continuing complaints about volunteering that does not go well.

Here is a check list for measuring expectations:

  1. I want to know what the organisation stands for, its mission and values – who, and what, I will be working for.  And I want to know what is expected of a volunteer.
  2. I want information about volunteer opportunities, job outlines, training programmes and support.  That training had better be good too, for me to do a good job.
  3. I’m happy to fill in all the forms, answer the questions, reveal all that info that can be checked via an official database, and I want to know why you want all these details, and the about the security of your security systems.  (Disasters in other fields in New Zealand this year have made me a bit nervous.)
  4. Yes, I shall complete all the training, but please explain why that health and safety stuff is important, even if all I will be doing is making cups of tea.
  5.  I would really like to be buddied with another volunteer until I feel confident in doing what you expect of me.
  6. That’s why knowing about back-up is so important.  Can I get answers, have a conversation, feel free to call in when I need to?
  7. I want to feel included, in the volunteer programme and in the work of the organisation, so I never have to say “I’m just a volunteer”.
  8. It would be good to know what my rights are too.  Do I dare lay a complaint if things go wrong?
  9. I get a real buzz when people say ‘thank you’ to me – service users and staff – and it’s also nice to go to those functions like IVDay where I can meet up with other volunteers.  Please keep this up!
  10. I really like the newsletters that keep me informed on what is happening in the organisation, always including a bit about volunteers.  And yes, I follow the Facebook page too.

That’s the basic stuff I go for when I volunteer.  I had to learn it the hard way, through the best of times and the worst of times.

That’s how I learned about management of volunteers too.  And I keep on learning from volunteers who tell me what they want.

One more thing – there’s a lot to be learned when volunteers are asked some good questions in an annual survey, and specially when they leave.