February 24, 2013
Just two months into the year and already there are plenty of agendas being talked up, plenty of rising anxiety levels in community sector organisations, accompanied by what sounds like, and feels like, a sinking lid for programmes and practice. Paying for criminal checks on volunteers, getting the charities legislation reviewed and the prospect of new contracting and funding arrangements through ‘social bonds’ are just three of the big picture issues. I shall leave them to other platforms for the moment.
My matter for this week is not as the headline suggests, the community gardeners. Nor am I presenting yet another promo for best practice volunteer recruitment. The niggle at the back of my head is the continuing interest in courting Gen X and Y to engage in volunteering, as though it was a new and untapped resource for organisations short on volunteers.
I wrote about Youth Volunteering a bit over a year ago, being enthusiastic about all the evidence of increases in young people’s involvement. And they continue to be involved, even as part of whole family volunteering. More recently Volunteering New Zealand has published a paper on UN Youth NZ; Labour Party youth are on a roll this year to connect with local community groups; in January United Nations announced a trust fund to support Youth Volunteerism. There is no end to the ways young people can be involved in their communities, and you can see this even at early school years when class projects open children’s minds to community and community needs.
Here is my ‘yes but’ question:
Are we cultivating volunteers or promoting the cult of youth?
The rise in youth volunteering is capturing attention at a time when retirees, the ‘baby-boomer’ generation, could be expected to join the ranks of volunteers in droves. They are not, for various reasons: they continue in paid employment; they are full-time care-givers for grandchildren; they are travelling the world and ‘pursuing other interests’. Yet there are still enough older people – and we can see them working in our communities every day throughout the year – to be a significant proportion in volunteer statistics. This is the expanding age group that is proving such a burden on governments and age-support organisations throughout the western world. To which I would say: “if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them”.
My plea is for inclusion, for all population groups. I am thinking of skills that older people can offer from their employment experience. I am thinking of tolerance and acceptance of difference that comes with age and experience, along with a raft of communication and relationship skills. Of course they do not have these skills on their own, and nor is the wisdom of age always informed by tolerance. But neither do young people hold all the answers to achieving organisation goals through volunteering.
Dissonance between age and youth is as old as time. This is not the time to pitch one in favour of the other. Volunteering could be the much-needed space where young and older New Zealanders come together to learn from each other and to appreciate the perspectives of different generations. That’s where leadership for the 21st century could come from.
Disclaimer: Please do not think I am carrying personal angst in writing the above. By conventional dating I belong to the Silent Generation, those who never spoke out, who accepted everything thrown at them. I like to think I have moved with my times.
PS: Comment per email sent by Salle-Ann Ehms:
As always, your blog is very thought-provoking. In the light of inclusiveness, I thought that you’d appreciate this photo I took last week-end. It’s not the best shot but I love the contrasts; youth-aged,
caucasian-asian, able-disabled, but what I most love is that none of those things are really relevant, the caring is palpable.
February 17, 2013
I have been collecting a litany of words commonly used as descriptors of volunteering. There’s quite a selection, and they cover various meanings, from conferring respect and value to some not-so-flattering terms.
Volunteers make the world go round Backbone of society
Local heroes Salt of the earth Good sorts People power
Glue / Fabric of the community Community Builders
Community collective Spirit of Community Community Champions
Not-for-Profit Institution Non-Government Organisation
Freebies Do-gooder Lady Bountiful
No doubt there are a few more to add (please do!) The one that is grabbing my attention at present is Unsung Heroes, a television programme on TVNZ. Yes, really! Volunteers are featuring on prime time TV, an extended series show-casing the range and variety of volunteer work in New Zealand.
Most of the major NFP organisations in our communities are represented, and there are some nice pieces on less widely-known charities. Even the Christchurch Student Army gets a look-in.
What a relief from other reality-TV programmes which too often display the sad, the bad and the downright silliness of human behaviour. Unsung Heroes hits all the right notes, covering the real activities undertaken by volunteers and including off-the-cuff comments on their motivation. Mostly the latter is about the feel-good benefits for the volunteer, or the doing-good-in-the-community effect, and once or twice because the volunteer had experienced help from the organisation they have joined.
And yet…. It’s all very well showing off the worthiness of volunteer work, and the achievements of volunteers – but if you haven’t got the background of the organisation, and what it takes to getting a volunteer on the job then you are getting less than half the story. There’s no show yet of a manager of volunteers, nor the extensive training undertaken by emergency service volunteers and telephone counsellors. Training has not had a mention in any context. Or even an induction and orientation. The series, thus far, has excluded that vast array of informal volunteering that goes under the radar and which really does make the world go round. It would be nice to see something of Mahi Aroha, and the volunteer effort generated by migrant and refugee communities for supporting their own and for sustaining their cultures.
OK – we can’t have everything, and we should be congratulating NZ On Air for commissioning the programme. But still I think – why not go a bit further?
What about creating a series based on the drama that is ever present in the life of a manager of volunteers? Synopsis: follow a valiant manager who herds a bunch of aspiring volunteers through the process of recruitment, training and placement, and what happens to them on the job. Now there’s a scenario to put management of volunteers on the map! Because they are our real Unsung Heroes.
February 3, 2013
Molly has volunteered for 25 years, delivering meals-on-wheels in a small country town. She took her turn once a week for two months each year. She’s a farmer living thirty minutes out of town and unable to volunteer more frequently. Molly enjoyed the work and the folk she came to know. Always her work was completed on time, no-one missed out and there were no muddle-ups.
Now Molly is 80 years old and would like to give away her volunteering days. She is all set to advise the volunteer coordinator accordingly. But the coordinator has not phoned, has not made contact, has not enquired about Molly’s well-being or otherwise. So Molly has been cast adrift with never a thank you note to acknowledge the years she has been serving in this rural community.
Too often we hear the tales of agony from managers of volunteers faced with scenarios of elderly volunteers who avoid recognising their age-related deficiencies. But to abandon a volunteer who has not put a foot wrong by simply ignoring them? Not on, I say.
Of course Molly might have picked up the phone herself to let the coordinator know she would not be coming back. Well, I’ve been on the end of such conversations with managers of volunteers and felt the pressure to change my mind, to keep on volunteering because the organisation needs me so badly, is so short of volunteers, and I’m so good at what I do, and the clients just love me. Molly doesn’t need such flattery. Nor is she feeling aggrieved, and is not about to blab about her experience to friends and neighbours. That’s a blessing, because in small town rural New Zealand where people and their business is known to all, that would spell damnation for the coordinator and the service.
The irony is, the coordinator is now delivering meals herself because she is unable to recruit more volunteers. That’s what we should really be concerned about – the colleague who is struggling, who needs support and probably a heap of good advice. And there is no Volunteer Centre to call on. What should we do? Stand back and watch everything go from bad to worse? Or take time, find some resources to lend a hand, or at least offer support?
I’ve got some ideas, because I know the area and there’s one or two contacts I can call on. OK, it could be tricky, but it is important to try.
Because one person’s plight is a bell tolling for all of us in this profession. Managing volunteers is more than running a good programme – it’s also an occupation that needs muscle and political strategising to maintain respect and value for volunteering. We need to look out for each other as well as the volunteers.