March 23, 2014
Perceptions of Volunteering
How do we perceive volunteering? Let me count the ways that people present requests for volunteer help and to offer volunteer time:
- Can you find a volunteer to clean up after staff meetings?
- We’d like to place volunteers with you for 15 to 30 hours per week for work experience.
- This care-giving service agency is being cut back and we’d like your organisation to provide volunteers to do this work.
- Please can you find volunteers to clean out this house, because commercial cleaners refuse to do it.
- I’ve got a couple of hours to fill in each week, I don’t mind what I do. What’s that? (Indignant tone) I don’t need any training or induction, I’ve got experience. I thought you’d welcome some extra help.
- We’ve got a team of volunteers ready to help, anything you need, for tomorrow
- There’s a fundraising event this weekend – we need several teams of volunteers
These requests and offers can come from internal staff or external agencies and individuals. Each statement offers different assumptions about volunteers and volunteering. Volunteers are menial hand-maidens, suitable for domestic work; organisations are desperate for volunteer help; and volunteers are readily available at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it is evident that when contracts are cut back volunteers from another organisation are expected to step up to roles that were formerly undertaken by paid staff. The eye of many a beholder reflects mistaken perceptions of volunteering.
Of course managers of volunteers are renowned for their flexibility and creative innovation when it comes to engaging and placement of volunteers. And some of the list above may not be out of tune with regular practice. More often I am seeing a mismatch between perception and the reality of 21st century volunteering.
Fifty years ago anybody who raised a hand to volunteer would be welcome. Fifty years ago there were always willing working bees turning out to fix up premises, clear a section, do a paint job or run a fundraising event. Regular cake stalls did the trick to pay for rented space and supplies. Fifty years ago there were no interviewing, training or police checks. Fifty years ago groups of volunteers were available even at short notice. There was little recognition of a volunteer sector: organisations were lumped together as ‘voluntary associations’.
This kind of volunteering has not gone away. Spontaneous volunteers appear in great numbers during disaster emergencies: nobody is asked, they all come to help, to look out for each other in times of need. People still gather in groups for a cause, an idea, to create a community garden or for a new community development initiative.
It’s the organisations that have changed, and formal volunteering for service provision has become one end of a long continuum covering the donation of freely given time.
Formalised volunteering is accompanied by obligations, regulations, recording, reporting and measuring. Volunteering has its own international and political associations. If volunteers are not counted as professional, their managers surely own to professional status. Volunteering in this context is big business.
There’s a set of rules now, except the rules of engagement can vary, depending on the organisation’s purpose, in-house structure and level of activity. No wonder there is confusion. No wonder managers of volunteers are pressed to explain over and over why they cannot meet the requests that fall outside designated programmes and responsibilities.
What to do?
Here’s my list of priorities:
- A clear statement on why volunteers are involved in the organisation, indicating what roles volunteers undertake
- A fully-developed policy on the volunteering programme
- Orientation for all paid staff includes time with the manager of volunteers
- Full information about the volunteering programme on the organisation’s website
- Spend time advising details of the volunteer programme to related agencies (Volunteer Centres, funders and corporate sponsors)
There are no guarantees these suggestions will change perceptions of volunteering overnight. But raising levels of understanding of volunteering under 21st century conditions will mean fewer inappropriate requests for volunteers.