March 2, 2014

Ask a Silly Question…

Posted in Civil Society, Language, Motivation, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:00 am by Sue Hine

questions_thumb[1][1]I’ve written quite a lot about definitions and meanings of ‘volunteering’ over my blogging years.  And I have to keep thinking about questions of ‘who is a volunteer’ as the word’s connotations expand to embrace corporate volunteering, internships and community service.  Now I have been snared yet again into debating with myself about the work I have been doing this week.

For the past few days I have been helping my daughter get her house in order for putting it up for sale.  She did not ask for my help: I offered.  I did not receive any monetary payment.  I gave my time freely without expectations of reward.  I gained enormous satisfaction from cleaning up the garden and washing windows, and seeing the improvements I achieved.  And I toned up a lot of muscles I hadn’t used in a while.  I got lots of hugs of appreciation.  I would volunteer likewise for friends and neighbours too.  And I have done the same sort of work when engaged as a volunteer for an organisation supporting new settlers in my community.

By many accounts, what I have described fits generally accepted criteria for ‘volunteering’ – except when I go looking, I find variations in definitions and additional conditions to determine the use of ‘volunteer’.

Volunteering England would exclude my efforts to help my daughter from definitions of volunteering.  It’s ‘informal volunteering’, which extends to all such unpaid help to someone who is not a relative.

So I need to understand there is a distinction between being a ‘helper’ and a ‘volunteer’, and a  formal / informal dichotomy of volunteering, even when I am doing the same sort of work.

Volunteering Australia goes further, in restricting ‘formal’ volunteering to an activity which takes place through not-for-profit organisations, and in designated volunteer positions only.  That sounds like a higher status is attached to formal volunteering.  Or, that the work I used to do freely and on my own initiative in my local community has become institutionalised as an economic resource, as unpaid labour.

That’s when warning signs light up contradictions.  NGO contracts with government rarely include funding for the costs of volunteer programmes, like a manager’s salary or reimbursement for volunteer out-of-pocket expenses.  Neither does ‘formal volunteering’ guarantee recognition and status for volunteers and the manager of the volunteer programme within the organisation.

In the meantime my informal volunteering continues to go un-noticed and uncounted.  A colleague reminded me of the words ‘natural support’ to describe all that child-rearing, house-keeping, befriending, good neighbourliness that goes on and on in our communities.  So if all that volunteering is ‘natural’, does that mean there is something ‘unnatural’ about formal volunteering?  That might sound flippant, but I have to ask the question.

One place where volunteering is not designated formal or informal is the data collected during a Census.  In New Zealand we are asked to record details about ‘unpaid work’, those activities performed in the four weeks before the census date, without payment, for people living either in the same household, or outside.  Statistics NZ describe volunteering as:

“Voluntary work supports groups and organisations whose activities contribute to social well-being. Volunteers give their time and skills to help others and give back to their community.”

Maybe this description is too simplistic for purists.  Yet the concept of ‘unpaid work’ enables an overall account of the scope of freely given activity in our communities wherever and however it occurs.  ‘Formal volunteering’ is a label that has evolved with the growth of the NGO sector.  It is a pity that institutional understanding and appreciation of volunteering and its management within organisations has not grown with the label.

Some years ago Andy Fryar raised similar questions about definitions of volunteering:

  • Why do we continually have to define volunteering only within the constraints of ‘formal’ volunteering?
  • Why can’t we create a definition that covers all types of volunteer involvement?

These questions are not so silly, and there are no easy or even silly answers.  We are continually tripped by meanings attached to different types of volunteer involvement.  It’s worth having a look at Volunteering Vocabulary (see inset p5) to see how many ways there are to use ‘volunteer’.

‘Volunteering’ is a word that has grown in use and expanded in meaning alongside social, political and economic change in our communities.  To confine ‘freely given time, skills and energy for the common good’ within the boundaries of a rigid definition could restrict our willingness to give so freely.


  1. Vanisa Dhiru said,

    Thanks for your thoughts here Sue. Definitions are always so complicated once you really look at different versions.

    There is also the NZ Government definition on the Dept of Internal Affairs site:$file/About_volunteering_NZ.pdf

    And there is the NZ Government Policy on Volunteering from 2002:$file/Government-Policy-on-Volunteering.pdf

    More food for thought.


    • Sue Hine said,

      There’s a whole library of definitions if you want Vanisa, all with subtle shades of meaning. But I see elements of a caste system appearing between informal ‘helping’ and Good Deeds, and the formal volunteering that gets greater attention.


  2. No, not a silly question Sue. Maybe we need to look at the definition of “formal” which is “done in accordance with rules” and “officially sanctioned”. The latter, “officially sanctioned” is what creates the caste system I think and at the heart of that is control. Maybe our support groups for volunteers should be a “come one come all” and we should invite anyone who has helped another without pay. The place would be packed!


  3. Roger Tweedy said,

    To add to the discussion on definitions see the article in Susan Ellis latest Energize update –
    “many people ask me whether there is a distinction between the English words “volunteerism” and “voluntarism” that I have written up my answer”


    • Sue Hine said,

      There’s some unplanned synchronicity going round at present Roger. Try Susan Ellis’ Hot Topic for this month:, and also the Third Sector reference above. I am also noting next Sunday is Good Deeds Day. So between these, and micro-volunteering, and Good Neighbours Day, Time-Banking and old-fashioned family relationships I am encouraged to learn the strength of ‘informal volunteering’ has not gone away. Up front in there is the example of communal/collective societies around the world, specially mahi aroha in New Zealand Aotearoa.


  4. Sue Hine said,

    Posted on behalf of Chris Beeman:
    By limiting “volunteer” accounting to only “formal” volunteering event, organizations especially governments are vastly under reporting the community citizenship. In an era when the world’s population (especially those without proper means to support themselves) is rapidly moving past what governments can possibly support monetarily, such unofficial sorts of acts of service and kindness are imperative to sustaining a liveable quality of life for many people.

    Christopher Beeman
    SVP Business Development & Co-Founder


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