October 27, 2016
The Holes in Volunteering
Posted in Politics of volunteering, Professionalism, Recognition of Volunteering, Sustainability, Valuing Volunteers tagged Advocacy, Civil Society, Empowerment;, social capital at 8:42 pm by Sue Hine
ComVoices, a network of national organisations in the tangata whenua, community and voluntary sector has just released a new State of the Sector Survey. In a press release Scott Miller, current Chair of ComVoices (and Chief Executive of Volunteering New Zealand), writes about the growing holes in the safety net provided by the community sector.
Yes, we’ve seen this coming for a long time now: the increased demand for services, greater complexity of community needs, and government exacting greater compliance regulations every year. “No-one appears to be listening”, says Scott.
So the ‘inequality’ debate is not only about wealth distribution – it’s also about unequal weighting placed on the community sector to deliver services to stressed communities: a load of expectations without realistic resources to meet them.
And just when you might argue that volunteers will fill the gaps in organisation capacity we find an international decline in volunteer numbers.
Trouble is, we’ve talked up the ‘voluntary sector’ for years, assuming volunteers will pick up the pieces and do what communities do, looking out for each other. Volunteers got organisations going, like Plunket and IHC and Parents Centre and Play Centre, and Surf Life-Saving, and all the local sports teams. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were volunteers responsible for gaining New Zealand women the vote in 1893; volunteers raised funds to build school swimming schools in the 1940s and 50s; volunteers spoke out loudly on domestic violence and rape, till the government offered funding, in return for a more muted voice.
These days, volunteers are much less likely to be life-time devotees to a cause. It’s not just because we are time-poor: we are preferring the short-term stint that offers a real job to do. Organisations face competition in attracting volunteers, and there is a great deal more these days to managing a volunteer programme than getting the numbers on board. At the same time the spread of volunteer opportunities has widened: from beach clean-ups to work experience, from ‘getting to know the community’ for new settlers to volunteering for English-speaking practice, from supporting a community garden to making breakfasts or lunches for the local school.
Mainstream organisations have become non-profit businesses, focused on employing professional staff and building relations with key funders as well as government. There is a sense that volunteering has become professionalised as well, given the structure and maintenance needed to ensure a well-functioning volunteer programme. (Though note how the manager of the programme is not worth nearly as much (salary-wise) as the Funding and Marketing manager.) Of course the “we could not manage without you” platitude is real, but the roles offered to volunteers are too often for amateurs, pitted against the professionals. I wonder how many of those volunteers are otherwise engaged in professional careers.
Volunteering is not going to disappear any time soon. But the symptoms outlined in the ComVoices report are as damaging to volunteering as they are to the organisations. A collapse in service delivery does not bear thinking about. And we cannot rely on volunteers (nor expect them) to pick up the pieces. We have moved a long way from the roots of the organisations that are now in thrall to government contracts and philanthropic grants.
Early next week Volunteering New Zealand’s conference will focus on the links between vision and action. Promoting, supporting and advocating for volunteering is the mission, ensuring volunteers are engaged effectively, that volunteering is visible, with sound leadership.
Volunteering lives. Let’s keep it that way!