April 22, 2017

Community & Voluntary Sector: What Do We Mean?

Posted in Civil Society, Language of Volunteering, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, Volunteer Diversity tagged , , at 11:34 pm by Sue Hine

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The collective noun of Community & Voluntary Sector is widely used. The words trip of the tongue whenever we want to make a point of how important the sector is, or to argue the significance of volunteer contribution to organisations and communities. Or to point out that this or that organisation is getting a raw deal.

Trouble is, ‘community’ invokes anything from my local neighbourhood, to a particular set of organisations or particular groups of people, and then links with the broader term of Civil Society. It’s a blanket word used so loosely we risk drowning the distinctions – and the voices – that are collectively represented in ‘community’.

You can read all about the facts and values of ‘community’ in Raymond Plant’s Community and Ideology: an Essay in Applied Philosophy (1974). (OK, it’s an oldie but still a goodie.) Plant argues there is no overall definition of community because there is always a value element implicit in using the word: when we talk about what a community is we are also inferring what a community ought to be like, and we may be talking about several different forms of community at the same time. Forty years later we can add ‘networks’ to the meaning of ‘community’, and ‘online communities’ and even global ones.

The Community & Voluntary Sector is also beset with a number of non-titles, like NGOs, NPIs, NFPs, or it is an also-ran as Third (and sometimes Fourth) Sector. Then there is the legal status of organisations: registered charity, incorporated society, or simply a non-entity, a neighbourhood group that organises an informal street clean-up. Or you can categorise organisations by their field of activity, and there are twelve fields according to New Zealand definitions for the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (2009). You could also say organisations contracted to provide services on behalf of government are yet another category, one that tends to dominate conversations about the sector.

I wish we could find another way of expressing a ‘community’ voice that does not lump us all in together, obscuring all the myriad services and groups catering for human diversity and their interests.

Now think about ‘voluntary’, another word used loosely, and then some. Yes, there is a fundamental applied definition of ‘work that is freely given without expectation of reward’, but then count all the different ways of volunteering, the different sectors of interest – and vested interests – and the diversity of volunteers and their motivations.  No wonder we run up against people and organisations that do not ‘get’ volunteering, that do not understand the word’s real meaning.

Volunteering is both a verb and a philosophic concept.  Our beliefs about people and our community relationships will flavour the sort of volunteering we undertake and why we volunteer. Yet too often organisations engaging volunteers have not thought beyond ‘unpaid labour’. There’s a lot more behind ‘working for free’ than donating one’s time.

Consider the different forms of volunteering:

  • Volunteering can be both formal (engaged with an organisation) and informal (helping people outside family obligations).
  • Volunteering can be regular or episodic, short- or long-term.
  • Volunteering can be undertaken as part of Corporate Social Responsibility by employees.
  • Volunteering includes activism for social or political change.
  • Volunteering as obligation, a civic duty.

And the roles undertaken by volunteers:

  • Governance
  • Personal support, befriending
  • Team leadership
  • Event organisation and participation (including fundraising)
  • Administration, from reception and clerical input to accounting
  • Pro bono professional services
  • Research
  • Exploring new approaches to service delivery – innovation

Or the drivers for volunteers:

  • Supporting a cause
  • A desire to connect, to belong in a community, to be useful
  • Gaining work experience (for Interns and unemployed people)

So next time a report is issued on numbers of volunteers, the hours they contribute and the $ value of their contribution to the organisation (or to GDP), start asking a few questions about what the volunteers are working at, and what they achieve. Think about just what sort of difference they make, and exactly why ‘you could not manage without them’.

And then do some hard thinking about how you talk about ‘community and voluntary sector’.  Is its purpose to contribute to GDP, or to social well-being and community cohesion – to be part of a strong Civil Society? Or is this sector largely the ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff of economic and social inequity?

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