June 27, 2015
Volunteering is for anyone and everyone! That’s the celebrating we have been doing for this week. The theme for National Volunteer Week, as the banner says, is ‘There is a place for you to volunteer’, ‘He wahi mohou hei tuao’. And you just had to cast your eye over press releases and newspaper inserts and social media posts to notice how much volunteering is going on, and how widespread it is across our communities.
Volunteering is nothing less than diversity, in volunteer opportunities, the volunteers themselves, and in the impacts of volunteering.
There’s a young mum and her infant daughter who go visiting at a rest home; you can live a boyhood dream as an engine driver; there are countless opportunities to get outdoors into conservation projects; you can pay it forward in volunteering with emergency services or a health sector organisation; become a best buddy to people who want a bit more social contact; be the key support person to help a refugee family find a place in their community; try to make a dent in the effects of poverty or violence, or the abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Volunteers are found in schools and hospitals and all the big institutions. They keep sports clubs going, drive emergency services, environment and heritage conservation. They make national and local events and festivals the best ever. They just keep on keeping on, whatever and wherever. (You can read more about the importance of diversity in a volunteer programme here.)
Yes, you know all that.
Of course we are thanking volunteers every day, in all sorts of ways. But on this one week of the year, what are we thanking them for? The litany of platitudes still gets paraded:
Thanks to our wonderful volunteers
We couldn’t manage without you
We really need you
You help us make a difference (to what? I might ask)
Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organisation
Much better, and more enlightening, are the messages coming through that tell something of what volunteers do for the organisation:
Thank you to all the volunteers ….
…..who work hard to ensure safe, enjoyable experiences in New Zealand’s outdoors for us all.
…..for helping to give more than 4000 individuals and families a hand up during the past year.
…..for supporting skilled migrants in their search for meaningful work.
…..for giving someone a second chance at life.
…..for helping support a life without limits.
…..for skills in providing telephone advice and resources.
Yes, you know all that stuff too.
This year there is a lot more quoting of figures related to volunteer services. But oh dear, the wide variation makes me wonder what oracles were consulted for the information.
Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector says: “On average there are just over 400,000 kiwis volunteering every week for a charity, adding up to over 1.5 million hours contributed to our communities”.
Another report says nearly 500,000 people volunteer on a weekly basis; or 800,000 hours of work per week. This rate amounts to 15.5% of the population, per week. Per annum it is said 1.2 million people volunteer – about 25% of total population.
Different research methodology and different variables make for a confusing mix of information.
I have a bit more confidence in the Quarterly indicators from Department of Internal Affairs for September 2014 (the latest available):
- Nearly 35 per cent of all respondents volunteered at least one hour of their time. This is the highest volunteering rate of the five years measured.
- Of those who volunteered, 59 per cent were female and 41 per cent were male.
- People between the ages of 30-39 volunteered the most.
And now there is a brand new survey from Seek Volunteer New Zealand which sheds a poor light on Wellingtonians: under 19% of working Kiwis in the region currently volunteer, though 38% say they have volunteered previously. It’s the lack of time, say 69% of those surveyed. Volunteer Wellington issued a prompt response which tells a different story:
‘Of the approximately 3000 volunteer seekers who come through our matching processes every year, those in the ‘working’ (meaning in full-time employment and part-time) category, have increased over the past few years and is currently nearly a third of our total volunteer seeker cohort.’
‘Annually we work with between 800–1000 employee volunteers who are matched with any one of our 400+ community organisation members to be connected with projects of interest. Last year 87 such projects took place, ranging from physical work to skill based programmes and, with several of these employee volunteering teams, being involved on a weekly basis.’
So while we claim New Zealand has a culture that values and encourages volunteering we are not so good in getting our facts together, or at least determining a consistent base-line for data-gathering.
Small wonder that organisations are being pressed to deliver measurable outcomes for the services delivered through government contracts. At the beginning of June the Minister of Social Development announces a new Community Investment Strategy to “create a more results-focused and evidence-based approach for purchasing of social services for vulnerable people and communities, and will also be more transparent, targeted, flexible and efficient”. On the first day of National Volunteer Week a clear warning is issued that more funding cuts are on the horizon.
No question that community social service organisations are under threat. I’d like to think the prospect of significant change creates a real opportunity to put volunteering up where it belongs. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark understood the importance of volunteering when she said “without volunteers New Zealand would stop”. (She repeated the tenor of this comment on Twitter on International Volunteer Day in 2014, as head of UNDP).
Volunteering will not go away any time soon. The adaptations to changing conditions will continue, innovation and enterprise will keep on creating new ways of responding to diverse situations – as people have done for millennia.
Seek Volunteer NZ might have got its figures wrong, but they have produced excellent presentations of real volunteers and the reality of volunteering. And included is the best line of the whole week, said by a volunteer about her work, illustrating yet another dimension of volunteering – the personal value:
You can’t put a price on the feeling of what you can get out of it – you can’t.