June 20, 2018

Pressing Government Buttons

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:09 am by Sue Hine


What is

Over the past thirty years you, dear government, and the community and voluntary sector, have created a vast amorphous collocation of organisations. We call them variously these days: non-government organisations (NGOs) or non-profit organisations (NPOs) or non-profit institutions (NPIs). We might as well call them non-entities for the way many of them keep struggling to stay afloat, to do the work expected of them, and to be so little acknowledged and appreciated for what they can accomplish.

You’ve done a lot to lift the game to your liking, like making organisations to be more responsible in reporting outputs and financial accountability. You’ve also introduced hoops to jump through in health and safety regulations, in applying for charitable status, and what that means. No shouting for my cause, for example, and de-registration if I dare.

You’ve turned organisations into quasi-businesses, into state service delivery agencies. On the cheap. Except this means organisations have to employ more professional staff, and that costs more, and the organisation mission starts to read ‘meeting contract obligations’ and not ‘serving the people, meeting their needs’. Somehow, though you do not spell this out, you seem to expect volunteer goodwill to take up the slack.

And while you draw large national organisations ever closer inside your tent, and attract others to do your bidding, you forget the breadth and depth of the community and voluntary sector, its diversity, its presence in every city and suburb, in every rural town and settlement. You forget that a nation does not thrive on government and business sectors alone:  He Tangata! He Tangata! He Tangata! – people are important too. Civil Society matters as much as your focus on economic growth. In so many different ways. Civil society groups, clubs, associations and organisations promote, develop, and maintain community well-being. They pick up pieces and people that do not fit your service norms; they fulfil leisure and artistic interests, engage people in social activities and sport; they lead the way into community development driven by community interests.

Of the 100,000+ NPOs in Aotearoa New Zealand 90% do not employ paid staff. That’s right. These organisations are led by and supported by volunteers. They create their own purposes and activities. They give their time and skills willingly, and community well-being is testimony to their achievements.

What you are missing

  1. Volunteering may sit alongside NGO and NFP sectors, but is not always an integral part. Formalisation of NGOs and their business has sidelined volunteer contributions. In big organisations volunteers risk becoming adjuncts, the nice-to-have people to fill the gaps, plug the holes left by funding shortfalls. That’s how volunteers get used, patronised and limited to tasks that deny the organisation of volunteer skills and experience that would enhance services and outcomes.
  2. Volunteering is not the same as Amateur. Volunteers are not there to supplement or replace paid staff. Volunteers complement the work of professional staff. They offer a distinctive value, they give something of themselves in ways that paid staff can not because they are perceived as being paid to do a job. Volunteers in emergency services put themselves on the line; volunteers in social services work with the most vulnerable people and challenging circumstances in our communities. There are more volunteers putting time and energy into environment and conservation projects than any official office.
  3. Volunteers have a long history as the innovators and creative forces for change. Think women’s suffrage movement, the origins of organisations for disabled children, the numerous support groups for a range of health conditions, the movements that created Women’s Refuge and Rape Crisis organisations. Today there is a raft of organisations working to alleviate conditions of poverty. Food re-cycling, community gardens, groups supporting victims of family violence and people with mental health problems are all active because of volunteer initiatives.
  4. Volunteering has to be part of the solution to the kind of society we want. Turning community and voluntary organisations into “state service delivery agents” is not the way to go. Like I said before: civil society matters as much as the government and business sectors. There are no limits to what both formal and informal volunteers can achieve, as we know from history. And history will also show the perils of overlooking the strengths of an active Civil Society.
  5. Volunteering benefits everyone. The individual volunteer gains in health and well-being, develops skills and community connections which spill over to strengthening social networks across our communities. Volunteers learn quickly how to work collaboratively and in partnership with others, attracting additional skills and talents to their collective endeavours. That’s the best way to create the social capital every community needs.
  6. Volunteers contribute to a strong and resilient democracy. That’s why a thriving Civil Society is so relevant.  Civil Society and volunteering can complement the work of government, but we also need to ensure those fundamentals of democracy are retained: our individual and collective rights, and our liberal society.  You should be really concerned when research on New Zealanders’ views on democracy indicates a ‘democratic deficit’:  “It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected.”
  7. Volunteers count, in more ways than numbers, the hours they work and the putative $ value they contribute to GDP. Such aggregation tells you nothing about the nature of volunteer work, and the qualitative outcomes they can achieve. Nor are these figures an accurate accounting – they are only as good as the recording system used. There are reports too, of many people not recognising or recording their community activities as volunteering.
  8. Volunteering is a “quintessential part of our culture”. There are plenty of such aphorisms, to be spouted at events to acknowledge the work of volunteers. Salt of the earth. Backbone of our communities – or, in this year’s National Volunteer Week logo: The Heart of Our Community. Yes, these are the generic references, but you should never forget that whether the Salt, the Backbone or the Heart, volunteers are individuals, people contributing to the greater good of our communities and to our national well-being. Do not, ever, take volunteers for granted.
  9. Listen to what volunteers are saying and honour them for what they believe and do:

Volunteering is as important to society as sunshine

When you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in. Because volunteering is what ‘community’ is all about – sharing our talents.

Belief in the goodness of people, and the possibility of organising our economy and society around values that drive our communities: generosity, collaboration, trust and compassion.

Volunteer work is as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth.  You just do it.

Being part of the community isn’t something that you tack on to life – it’s a really important part of life.

Volunteering gets into your blood.  Like you can’t live without it.

And yes, this week is National Volunteer Week. But please remember – volunteering is a year round endeavour. It is a daily enterprise in all parts of New Zealand. We are worth noticing for what we contribute to national life and to local communities.