January 18, 2014

Unseasonable Doubt

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering tagged , , at 10:43 pm by Sue Hine


On New Year’s Day 2014 I was far from windy and wet Wellington.  Beachcombing on a wide bay under a hot sun was just the tonic to clear the head.

I had a few things to sort out about developments in volunteering, social services and the community sector.

I have been mightily impressed with the promotion of volunteering during the past year.  The work of Volunteering New Zealand for National Volunteer Week (June) and the International Days in November and December was truly encouraging.  The model of NGO partnership between Volunteering New Zealand, ANGOA and Social Development Partners is one to follow for other organisations, for economies of scale if nothing else.  I would like to think such a partnership will enhance the status and influence of the community sector on political decision-making.  I also noted how managers of volunteers got to find greater confidence in undertaking their roles, and the value of meeting and learning from each other – the VNZ Conference in November was testimony to that.

But the devil in my mind is in a bigger picture, not the detail.

The growth and status of NGOs                After thirty years of neoliberal economic policies and devolution of government I should not be surprised to find organisations tending to act like corporate businesses.  Of course they needed to lift their game, to become more businesslike in governance and financial management and to comply with all the regulations that filtered through government contracts and obligations to philanthropic funding.  Of course time and changing social conditions can alter an organisation’s focus on its mission and vision.  But the trend to seek sponsors and partnership arrangements with private sector business, and the rise and rise of corporate employee volunteering is another dimension that risks turning NGOs into ‘subsidiary businesses’.

Three matters of concern arise from this trend.

Ongoing lack of understanding about volunteering  The commercial and consumerist world has trouble accommodating the idea and practice of time, skill and effort given freely for the benefit of others.  We get platitudes of appreciation, not genuine understanding.  It seems the wealth of volunteer action cannot be counted therefore it must be of little value.  Which explains why so many managers of volunteers remain poorly paid and of low status, while fundraising and marketing personnel are the rising stars.  The resulting outcome is to find pursuit of sustainable funding sources taking priority over connections with the communities organisations purport to serve.

Volunteering is a utilitarian tool  Volunteers have all sorts of reasons to volunteer, and it’s good to be open about wanting work experience, social interaction, practice in speaking English, to be job-seeking or doing court-ordered community service.  Altruism has always involved a reciprocal benefit, even if it was a simple feel-good factor.  But we are close to perceiving volunteering as an asset to be exploited, to be traded like any other commodity.

Two-tiered non-profit sector  All this business development for NGOs has led to overlooking what is happening in the rest of the sector.  We should not need to be reminded there are thousands of not-for-profit organisations (NFPs) keeping communities keeping on mostly without the benefit of government contracts and philanthropists’ largesse.  Outspoken concern from writers, researchers and commentators on poverty and inequality during the past year has highlighted the distance between government rhetoric and social reality in many parts of our communities.  The words ‘democratic disconnect’ resonate, emphasising voter apathy and a populace focussed more on survival needs than on gathering people power.  ‘Democratic deficit’ highlights government opposition to criticism and a lack of real consultation which pressures NGOs into silence for fear of jeopardising their funding arrangements.

So where does all this leave managers of volunteers?  In the spirit of New Year optimism I think there are heaps of indicators for a positive future.  The role of managing volunteers might have emerged in concert with the growth of NGOs and the sector, yet over the last ten years the profession has made huge strides in defining the role and articulating best practice.  Technology and the internet have fostered global and local communication.  There are opportunities for training and development.  There is an established sense of identity and collegial fraternity among practitioners which extends to supporting people new to the role.

The challenge for now will be to protect volunteer programmes from the encroachments of utilitarian managerialism, to maintain that spirit of volunteering we have taken as an article of faith for generations.  Or shall we accept a radical shift in our ideology and go with the flow of larger interests?


  1. Steve Bill said,

    Great volunteer programmes do not fall out of the sky: it is good management practice that makes them even better.

    Really thought provoking ideas and points in here but I believe parts of this debate are historical issues. My experience in the sector has seen many governance bodies and organisations struggling to maintain an almost anti “business/government/corporate” pathway in structures and systems, and continuing to be less efficient and effective because of it. Surely “good management practice” has the same components in whichever sector it operates, albeit with different nuances and emphases. Our challenge is to utilize best practice methods without compromising our values or strategic goals. Have we not always enjoyed a “two tier” community sector where some thrive on service contracts whilst others are comfortable and successfully operating in the relatively low budget voluntary arena?


    • Sue Hine said,

      Thanks for your comments, Steve. I expected to be roundly challenged, and I acknowledge the accepted truth of ‘management is management’ regardless of sector – though I still think there are some points to debate here. However, I reckon we should be really concerned for the implications of under-valuing and down-grading of volunteer effort.


      • Steve Bill said,

        Hello Sue, I entirely share your concern regarding the under-valuing and down-grading of volunteer effort. It is an easy step for organisations to take a tick box approach to both engaging in volunteer activity or utilizing volunteer effort. My earlier comment wasn’t really angled at promoting the view that ‘management is management’ but observing that the principles of good management are sometimes ignored in the community sector as being tainted somehow by their ‘business’ connotations. Of course this practice is also true of some businesses! I have witnessed so many examples where organisations in various sectors have failed to deal with the performance deficiencies of managers who in turn have failed to address issues with their direct reports. This creates a toxic environment which ultimately erodes productivity and incurs real human cost.


  2. ‘ We get platitudes of appreciation, not genuine understanding. It seems the wealth of volunteer action cannot be counted therefore it must be of little value. Which explains why so many managers of volunteers remain poorly paid and of low status, while fundraising and marketing personnel are the rising stars. ‘

    You really struck a chord here, Sue. More and more, organizations are competing with each other and private sectors for money and ultimately power and control. Volunteers are often seen as necessary evil, that silly part of an organization where basically unskilled coordinators herd cats. There is no real understanding of the added value of volunteers and sadly the worst part is there is no desire to understand. That’s our uphill battle.


  3. Sue Hine said,

    To Steve I say Yes! Some managers and organisations are more equal than others. Which means for me that managers/leaders of volunteers need to be the best they can so that volunteers can experience the best of volunteering. That’s the challenge Meridian, to raise our game so that even if we are perceived as ‘herding cats’ the volunteers still find their work worthwhile.


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