April 28, 2014

The Volunteer Centre Experience

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Managing Change, Politics of volunteering, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , at 12:01 am by Sue Hine




The current issue of e-volunteerism is devoted to the purpose and futures of Volunteer Centres.  I’ve been reading the critiques and the caveats, and the challenges for a sustainable future, drawn from all around the (western) world.


There’s a tension between Volunteer Centres and managers of volunteers, say Susan J Ellis and Rob Jackson.  VCs are competing with community organisations for funding; they are not working with basic community needs as much as they could; and they are slow to take up on-line technology that could cut across their traditional brokerage role.  Changing times means VCs need to adapt to shifts in the way the world of the community and voluntary sector (and government policy) works.

For volunteering and Volunteer Centres the discussion is more than interesting reading.  It has spurred me to reflect on my own connections and experiences with Volunteer Centres in New Zealand.

I get to read newsletters from around the country and to keep up with their Facebook posts.  My direct experience is mostly with Volunteer Wellington.  (It is their logo at the top of this post.)  In my early days as a manager of volunteers their lunchtime training sessions were a life-saver, an opportunity to connect with other organisations and to share common experiences – and to learn from each other.  More recently I have facilitated a few training sessions, still seeing managers of volunteers hungry for knowledge and skill development.  Volunteer Wellington’s Employees in the Community programme is a boon for community organisations, not just for the work corporate businesses can offer.  Their brokerage process avoids the embarrassment for managers of volunteers when unsolicited offers of assistance have to be declined – because you don’t have a job for them, and certainly not for large numbers at a time, or the request is to do something next week, if not tomorrow.

I have worked alongside VC managers on the Volunteering NZ project which produced the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations and Competencies for Managers of Volunteers.  They know their stuff, the organisations they work with, and they whole-heartedly support the role and practice of managers of volunteers.

But how does the performance of Volunteer Centres in New Zealand stack up against the questions raised in e-volunteerism commentaries?

I have heard wary comments about engaging with on-line technology.  The traditional process of brokerage based on face-to-face interviews and phone-call liaison with organisations risks getting side-stepped if there is ready access to an on-line database of volunteer opportunities.  Yet local evidence suggests personal contact and meetings are highly productive for both prospective volunteers and for organisations.

Centres may not be taking full advantage of social media yet, and micro-volunteering appears to be a step too far at this stage.  That’s begging the question of whether they are keeping up with other trends in volunteering, related to generational differences for example.

I have been impressed with Volunteer Wellington’s good relations with local government and their efforts to promote community engagement.  They work hard to build on existing relationships with their members.  But is this enough?  Are they working on behalf of volunteers and volunteering, or for their member organisations?  This is where I refer to the e-volunteerism commentary by Cees M. van den Bos (Netherlands).  He describes the difference between formal and informal volunteering as ‘system world’ and ‘life world’, and makes a case for a broader outlook and strategic development to incorporate both.  Here is the challenge for Volunteer Centres, to extend collaboration and make a shift to ‘community development’ practice models.

Volunteer Wellington’s statistics show they work with a wide age range and a variety of cultures which mirror the region’s ethnic population distribution.  But it seems people of the 60+ age cohort go elsewhere to find volunteer opportunities, or they are failing to get engaged.  It’s a pity the Centre’s record of working with disabled people is not publicly available.

My reflections draw on examples from Volunteer Wellington, though my comments are generalised.  New Zealand’s contribution to the e-volunteerism article from Cheryll Martin extols Volunteer Centre achievements, and their range of activities.  There is much to ponder from other commentators in the article, and nothing is more certain than significant change is imminent.

The e-volunteerism article opens with this statement: “Volunteer Centres are vital to build and sustain local and regional volunteer ecosystems”.   I would like to think our small population and social interconnectedness creates advantages that will sustain volunteer ecosystems into the future.


  1. gisvc said,

    Interesting write up this week, created great discussion in our VC office!
    Surely we are not wanting to be known solely for our brokerage service after all if any team of people are not managed and supported well they can become a disjointed group of people and not a team of volunteers.
    This is an area where I believe VCs are and can lead the way for organisations to receive support, assistance in developing and management of volunteer programmes.
    The connection that VCs have within their own community and direct connections of those groups within that community does not in my opinion warrant a feeling of competing, quite the opposite of enabling community groups to connect to one another through the common theme of volunteering.
    Technology is also a personal choice, for VCs to be able to be available to all interested ,then all forms of communication should be readily available to the potential volunteer.
    Lastly, any one can register on line it is though a well planned and skilled organisation/Volunteer Centre that can volunteer interview,appropriate referral, support and follow up takes place.

    Or maybe being a recruitment coordinator I am just biased!


    • Sue Hine said,

      You are right on Jane, in the way you serve your community(-ies). Yes you do more than brokerage, and I acknowledge the support Volunteer Centres offer for developing best management practice around volunteer programmes. Yes you are enabling volunteering in groups around your community. And I know you are regular users of social media.

      But will this be sufficient in the future? Are you looking at wider community interests, encouraging and facilitating volunteering in all sectors? Where is the potential to do more for people and for organisations?

      The competition I referred to is cited by Ellis and Jackson – Volunteer Centres are up against other organisations in funding rounds. What would happen if current funding arrangements for VCs were reduced or siphoned elsewhere? This is happening in UK and is threatened in Australia.

      Are you looking at population trends and demographic shifts, and the migration to major cities which will impact on provincial regions? How will local groups maintain services with potentially reduced funding and very likely a much smaller pool for volunteer recruitment? Is it time to think about collaboration with possible consolidation of services in the future?

      I expect my questions here might generate another spirited discussion in your office. The questions are not directed to your Centre in particular. I hope they will give pause for thought in other places.


      • gisvc said,

        Thanks Sue, no one to discuss with today so it will have to keep, I am now busy looking at how to respond to an interesting email passing around about the term “mirco” volunteering .Perhaps your blog topic for next week!


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