January 26, 2016

Re-Discovering Life’s Natural Resource: Volunteering

Posted in Annual Review, Community Development, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering, volunteer experience at 2:47 am by Sue Hine

definitionThe New Year has not rolled over with great optimism.  There are more columns devoted to dealing with back-to-work blues than with 2016 opportunities.  In the NFP sector organisations face another year of funding constraints, government expectations (and directives), and rising competition for securing contracts.  Not to mention public concern for inequality, child poverty, housing shortages, the environment, and the implications of TPPA.

It looks like we are repeating Rousseau’s adage: Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.  The ethic of Fairness that has been a hallmark of New Zealand’s history is rapidly eroding, so it is no surprise to find a call to renew our social contract with government, specially in the light of the electorate’s disenchantment when it comes to exercising democratic voting rights.

Yet there is something else going on, almost under the radar.  While the formal NFP sector wrings its hands, numbers of informal clusters of community groups and enterprises are increasing in response to social needs, community development initiatives continue to achieve their goals, and the ‘hand-up’ helping scene is thriving.  As Colin Rochester has advocated, I am hearing the beat of a different drum.*

Statistics NZ has published results of its 2014 survey of social networks and support.  In terms of how Kiwis connect 93% live in supportive neighbourhoods; 78% have friends living close by or in the same neighbourhood; around 64% belong to a club, group or organisation (we have long been known as ‘joiners’); and nearly all of us (97%) have at least one supportive family member.  That looks like a pretty good level of social connectedness, despite poverty and poor living conditions for one in seven households in New Zealand.  As active examples Neighbourly Facebook pages might be a digital means of communication, but it sure is an effective way to keep in touch with what is going on around your area, and about local resources.   Inspiring Communities continue to facilitate community-led development, and to promote Neighbours’ Day.  Time Banks are flourishing.

This ethic of reciprocity and a relationship economy is alive and well, and new and energetic small scale groups are proving their worth in social action.  Some may not call such activity volunteering, yet it still involves unpaid time, energy and skills.

When it comes to donating money the World Giving Index 2015 rates New Zealand third, just behind Myanmar and the US.  We are up two places from 2014, and the fourth most active nation for volunteering.   Numbers donating money to charity rose by a significant 11%.

Has the press of poverty enhanced the giving spirit of Kiwis?  Or is it due to the influence of Pay It Forward philosophy, the promotion of Giving Tuesday, Good Deeds Day and GiveALittle crowd-funding website?  Well, we know about the health benefits of volunteering, and it seems giving money, like kindness, also has its own rewards.  And more often than not volunteers are both time and money donors.

Yet word is that volunteer numbers have fallen in US by 3.5% in the last ten years, and by 5% in Australia over five years.  (No recent information is available for New Zealand.)

It is time to pay more attention to the informal NFP sector, where effective volunteering doesn’t just happen: it’s based on the fundamentals of good relationships, a sense of community interdependence and a commitment to social action.  There could be some valuable learning in a different approach to volunteering.

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Rochester, Colin (2013) Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum.  UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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