June 16, 2013

Volunteer Recognition (3) Why?

Posted in Celebrations, Civil Society, Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:05 am by Sue Hine


National Volunteer Week is upon us.  The stories about volunteers will unfold through newspaper spreads and press releases, and celebratory functions will be held all over the country.

This feast for volunteering goes international every year, and now it is New Zealand’s turn.  Here, Volunteer Awareness Week has morphed into National Volunteer Week, taking a broader account of the ‘volunteer industry’.   In Wellington corporate volunteering gets due recognition for example, and there are at least a couple of workshops specially to support managers of volunteers.  Watch out for Volunteering New Zealand’s latest innovation: a daily webinar on different topics related to volunteering.

Why do we do this, every year?  What’s the rationale for putting such energy and expense into appreciating volunteers and the business of supporting volunteering, for one week every year?

I could presume we do this because:

  • Volunteers and volunteering are ignored the rest of the year
  • The news media don’t give much attention to good news stories
  • Organisations are focused on service delivery and overlook how much the work of volunteers contribute to those services on a regular basis
  • Any excuse for a party!
  • Opportunity for self-promotion of organisations and Volunteer Centres
  • It’s a great exercise to recruit more volunteers to the ranks

There might be some elements of truth here, but not enough to justify an annual blast of publicity.  We do a great deal of appreciation and recognition throughout the year, in large and small ways, both publicly and privately.  So why do we still need to hold an annual week in praise of volunteering?

I’m having trouble finding rational answers to this question, specially when I hear volunteers saying:

Volunteer work is as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth.  You just do it.  Being part of the community isn’t something that you tack on to life – it’s a really important part of life.

Volunteering gets into your blood.  Like you can’t live without it.

If volunteering is so every-day and ordinary, so much part of our lifeblood, why the need for an annual fanfare?

Maybe the point about recruiting more volunteers is a good enough reason, because total volunteer numbers represent only one third of our population (though the data is probably under-reported).  Because many organisations find they are constantly short on volunteers, and long in demand of services provided by volunteers.  It’s not unreasonable to showcase opportunities to attract interest in volunteering – except recruitment and retention of volunteers is an on-going practice which cannot be left to an annual drive.

Maybe a promotional week is something bigger than the detail of recruitment and recognition.  Maybe it’s the real opportunity to remind people about values of community, service, and the importance of Civil Society.  We might be labelled as non-government or non-profit organisations, and relegated to the less-than-noble title of Third Sector, but by heck if we were not around the political and economic sectors would be missing the third leg of the stool that represents the sort of society we enjoy.

Maybe it is coincidence that CIVICUS has published a new report on the role that civil society plays and the conditions that enable it to do so.  It is certainly timely.

Civil society plays multiple roles. We bring people together. We encourage debate, dialogue and consensus building. We research, analyse, document, publish and promote knowledge and learning. We develop, articulate and seek to advance solutions to problems. We engage with people and organisations in other spheres, such as government and business, to try to advance and implement solutions. We directly deliver services to those who need them.  Sometimes we do all of these things at once. We need to assert that these are all legitimate civil society roles.  [p 33]

This is what we do, all year, every year – right?  And if you, as an organisation or as a volunteer, are struggling to be heard – take heart that you are not alone in the world:

The value that civil society brings always needs to be proved, documented and promoted – and the argument for civil society continually made: “While the assumption of the need for strong government and private sectors is today generally not questioned, the need for a strong civil society is not always so readily assumed.”  [p44]

The report is worth reading in full to appreciate the global trends we are experiencing in New Zealand.

Maybe there is no definitive explanation for holding a National Volunteer Week.  For now and for this week all I need to know is the answer to the question : What is the most important thing in the world?  He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!  That is the start and the end-point of volunteering and community development, and of Civil Society.  It is people!

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