September 15, 2013

When is a Volunteer Not a Volunteer?

Posted in Language, Leading Volunteers, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 3:44 am by Sue Hine

definitionAn excerpt from a NFP newsletter dropped into my inbox recently.  The headline read We are not Volunteers.  The author preferred the term unpaid appointees on the basis that such people were ‘nominated’ by community organisations, rather than ‘putting up their hands’ to volunteer.  In all other respects these unpaid appointees followed standard volunteer programme practices in being interviewed, attending a training programme and orientation.  On completion of all this they were gazetted and sworn in to undertake their roles as Justices of the Peace.  That was the bit that put them beyond being called volunteers.

Oh dear – here we go again on the definitions and principles of volunteering.

Are volunteers for emergency services, for surf life-saving and fisheries protection to be deemed a different category from JPs?

For a couple of years a debate on whether unpaid interns are volunteers has been rumbling around internet channels.  See recent updates in this UK post, and this article in e-volunteerism. 

What about the work-for-the-dole programmes, and community sentencing?  That’s ‘compulsory’ work for nothing, people say, not volunteering!

When I give my time and accept tickets for a concert in return is that volunteering, or incentivised something?  Time-Banking raises another curly question: for all its popularity it’s more about exchanging services, a trading arrangement, isn’t it?

Then there’s the business of ‘informal volunteering’, being a family care giver for aged or disabled people, or being a good neighbour.  This sort of volunteering simply goes under the radar, uncounted and unrecognised.  But it is suggested that foster care, which is paid, could be termed volunteering under a ‘moral contract’.

And even if organisations involved in advocacy and activism are not eligible for charitable status, their workforce embodies significant volunteer commitment.

Some of these instances were debated in a panel discussion on the scope and definition of volunteering at the recent Australian National Conference on Volunteering.  Opinions diverged of course, but there was a point of agreement on the way forward:

Overcoming the undervaluing of volunteering is the outstanding challenge

This undervaluing of volunteering is evident in both NFP and Government sectors, said the CEO of Volunteering South Australia/Northern Territory.  Recent research in New Zealand drew similar conclusions.  It does not take much to see the flow-on effect in low respect and appreciation for the work of managers of volunteers.

So debate and discussion on what constitutes volunteering is a very big red herring.  The real issue here is finding a voice that speaks out about the value of volunteering, and I don’t mean in economic terms.  Volunteering is a force to be reckoned with, and we owe it to volunteers and our communities to demonstrate why and how.

The collective “We” includes organisations and their leaders, the movers and shakers in our communities, and managers of volunteers.  By creating alliances and developing collaboration we will find a unified voice, telling the story of volunteers and volunteering like it is.

There’s encouragement to be found in the latest Thoughtful Thursdays posting.  Susan Ellis acknowledges the busyness of managers of volunteers and reviews some reasons why we do not speak out.  The real challenge is to find ways to present volunteering as a vital part of civil society, within organisations as well as in the wider community.


  1. realruth said,

    In September 2001 the N.Z. “Justices Quarterly” printed an article headed “No, you are not a volunteer”. In December 2001 they published my letter pointing out that J.P’s were in fact volunteers. The then Federation President responded rejecting this. In the March 2002 issue there was a further letter from an “ageing white male” agreeing with me that “every JP who allows their name to go forward for nomination is in fact volunteering their services” and suggesting that the President had been “found guilty as charged” and was “hereby sentenced to a lifetime of voluntary community service”. I’m sad to learn that some J.P.s still don’t realise they are volunteers.


    • Sue Hine said,

      It’s also sad Ruth, that (some) JPs are not taking pride in their volunteer status which signifies such a huge community contribution to the justice system.


  2. Roger Tweedy said,

    Another good blog Sue – always through provoking !
    Just back from OZ and was at both the NSW Volunteering Conf (with very strong time banking theme) and the VA one. The panel questions were quite naive, almost the sort Q we were asking many years back when DWI obligations starting appearing ( remember CVC had very strong views Ruth) Agree Sue with the ‘red herring’ comment. We need to get over the ‘prueness’ and rally collectively around the commonalities. During my 3 weeks in OZ, I spoke with TimeBankers, Social Enterpreneurs, Interns,Work brokers and people who like to use the term ‘gift work’ (appeals often to older men) and all are aspects of the great volunteering family in my eyes.
    The common thread is people working for the ‘common good’ rather than for $$$


  3. Hi Sue! As usual, great, thought inducing post. Although I am not familiar with all the debates going on in your country, I believe there is much for the rest of us to take away. Will debating “vounteerism” help elevate the volunteer manager role? I certainly hope so. Will establishing the idea that just because someone steps forward to volunteer does not mean they will necessarily be accepted help elevate our role? I hope so again. These messier debates could be necessary to sort out the critical role of the volunteer manager. Optimistically, I hope that it becomes clear that “someone” with definitive skill sets must recruit, train, mentor, manage, educate and retain valuable volun… well, whatever they want to call them.
    Thanks for the front line analysis!


    • Sue Hine said,

      As you suggest Meridian, the status of managers of volunteers is bound up with the understanding and respect accorded to volunteering (or not). I think this is an international issue, going by what I read. (See for example recent posts and comments at And if I look at a bigger picture I am concerned for the way ‘civil society’ is being constrained by government and business interests.


  4. Shirley Woodrow said,

    As a JP I was appalled when I read the article in the “Justices Quarterly”. A fellow JP and I wrote a response which I believe will be published in the next issue. We are both Managers of Volunteers and know that our prospective volunteers go through similar processes of vetting, interviews etc before being accepted. I am clear that the time I give as a JP is voluntary and I did not have to accept the role.


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