May 18, 2014

The Power of Volunteering

Posted in Celebrations, Civil Society, Language, Leadership, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:05 am by Sue Hine

8[2]Congratulations to Volunteering Australia who celebrated last week their 25th year of National Volunteer Week (NVW).  That is some achievement.  And always (as in New  Zealand too, next month) it is a great opportunity to hold special events for acknowledging and saying ‘thank you’ to the thousands of people for their contributions and commitment to all parts of our communities.

This year the promotional theme for Australian volunteer-involving organisations was The Power of Volunteering.  But forgive me, country cousins – I am trying to figure what you mean by ‘the power of volunteering’.

‘Power’ is a word I associate with leadership and influence, with strength and a force to reckon with, and with achievement and change.  Given that volunteering/volunteerism operates along a continuum from political action to small informal volunteer groups pursuing community interest projects, what are the manifestations of strength and influence in the sphere of volunteering?

What change has resulted from street marches on poverty, domestic violence, or low-wage occupations?  Will global protests really help to “Bring Back Our Girls”?  Yes, there are a heap of good intentions in protest marches and demonstrations – but I cannot recall any direct political change from such actions.  Even the constant pressure of protests in 1981 could not put a stop to the South African Rugby tour of New Zealand.

I am talking here about civic action, expressions of community interest, seeking change of some sort.  But if nothing changes where is the power of this kind of volunteering?

Volunteer responses in times of disaster can achieve great things.  I have written twice under the heading of People Power – in praise of the volunteer response to Christchurch earthquakes and the beach pollution of the Rena grounding.  That’s the power of spontaneous collective action, based on humanitarian and environmental values.  I’ve praised the staying power of volunteer fire-fighters who sustain their essential service, along with volunteers in other emergency services.  That’s demonstrating the power of volunteer commitment.

It is different in everyday volunteer workforce contributions to community support services – environmental, education, disability, health and welfare, arts and leisure and sporting activities.  Volunteering in these contexts is formalised, organised, programmed, contained – and constrained.  By their numbers they are a powerhouse for the voluntary sector.  But let’s not fool ourselves: volunteers are a utilitarian labour resource for organisations serving the interests of government, business, and community.

That is what we acknowledge during our National Volunteer Week.  It is not the power of volunteering; it is the goodwill, the giving of time, energy, skills, and personal commitment to organisational missions and values that we wish to honour.

Yet there is a kind of power in the intrinsic benefits of volunteering, where volunteers gain for themselves.  Engaging with an organisation can be a way of finding that sense of belonging in a community, of being respected.  Volunteering can raise self-esteem, self-awareness and confidence, and don’t forget – volunteering is good for your health.  Volunteering is attractive for people seeking work experience (whether as graduate interns or unemployed people), for developing skills, for migrants and refugees to improve language proficiency.

So while I have doubts about volunteering being a power of ‘irresistible force’, there is much to be said for the work of volunteers in the way it signifies a strong and healthy civil society.

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2 Comments »

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Sue. Is volunteerism a flash flood of power that uproots trees in its’ wild rampage down the swollen banks? Or is it a large calm lake, fed by brooks and streams, its’ waters clear and beautiful, where we go to rejuvenate and be nourished? Too often the misguided words and images used to describe volunteering and volunteers give a false sense of what we are trying to accomplish.
    We are more like a complex symbiotic natural system that benefits society, the volunteer, the recipient and us as well. Now that’s power.

    Like

    • Sue Hine said,

      Love your imagery here Meridian, and yes, ‘complex natural system’ is what volunteering is all about, and it has been a system for social protection and bonding communities from pre-history times.

      Like


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