August 24, 2014
The lugubrious title for this post captures the sombre tone of a recent news headline: Academic Warns of Australia’s Disappearing NFP Sector. And the full account of Professor Paul Smyth’s seminar presentation is worth reading to follow the arguments. Here are some variations on his theme:
A new order of things where the private sector practises social responsibility and states seek to be more entrepreneurial, while community organisations become more and more business-like.
Not only is your mission as a community sector organisation irrelevant but your practice risks ending up indistinguishable from private sector providers.
The voluntary sector is seen as having no distinctive value add to bring to the welfare table but becomes just another rival ‘business’ in a privatised service market.
These views are not exclusive to Australia – indeed they represent a trend that can be found elsewhere, including New Zealand. I’ve been collecting indications over the past couple of years:
The meaning of ‘Democratic deficit’ allows governing bodies the power to do what they like. 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. (Grey & Sedgwick research, 2013)
Volunteer sector service providers are under public management. The contracting environment has introduced competition within the sector, undermined efforts at collaboration, and reduced the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of community organisations.
There’s a decline in volunteer numbers, and their role has become instrumental rather than a means towards mission achievement. There is even some anxiety about using the word ‘volunteer’.
A logical outcome of marketisation of non-profit organisations is a weakening of Civil Society. We are seeing this already in the fall of public participation, particularly in ‘voter apathy’ at election time. When major NGOs become ‘privatised’ they take on the formality and philosophies of the corporate sector. When non-profit and community organisations are required to dance to government dictates they are effectively disempowered, losing control of their purpose and practice. When Civil Society is weakened it can no longer offer a counterbalance to the power and control of the market and government: citizens and their communities are the poorer for that.
“It’s time for outrage!” is a cry that has not yet been taken publicly. But we do need to start the “difficult conversations about the future”. It can be argued that the present paradigm for delivering social services is neither sustainable, nor desirable: “there is an emerging consensus that the welfare sector … is being stripped of its ethos of service to the community and of the ethic of voluntarism”. Professionalisation of care services delivery diminishes the power of voluntary contribution from wider community. We lose the diversity of networks and connections and opportunities that the broader community can bring to social needs.
None of these views are new. You can read about their evolution in New Zealand in this history of the non-profit sector. This publication includes a reminder that our present is a product of past conditions, and:
….non-profits have always had life cycles, and that there was a historical pattern of growth and decline. This has been an essential element in the vibrancy and adaptability of the sector.
It is time now to get beyond outrage. We need to revive that vibrancy, the commitment and concern that created the sector in the first place. The end is not nigh, but we do need to reaffirm the strength and status of volunteering and community organisations.
Cartoon sourced at http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/nfp-kneebone 24/01/13
June 15, 2014
Volunteering New Zealand have done it again! Here’s another National Volunteer Week banner, together with a message to inspire volunteers and their organisations. You can learn more about the whakatauki and its theme here.
The buzz about NVW has started already, with postings and notifications for events to come. And some nice little tasters, like this piece from Volunteer Wellington’s June newsletter:
According to recent OECD statistics people in this country spend an average of 13 minutes per day volunteering, compared with four minutes in other countries. The stats go on to say this results in higher ‘happiness’ ratings plus longer life expectancy.
Nice one – New Zealand leads the way in yet another field of endeavour! It’s worth reading this OECD report for its background introduction, as well as finding out more on the data.
Humans are social creatures. The frequency of our contact with others and the quality of our personal relationships are thus crucial determinants of our well-being. Studies show that time spent with friends is associated with a higher average level of positive feelings and a lower average level of negative feelings than time spent in other ways.
Helping others can also make you happier. People who volunteer tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Time spent volunteering also contributes to a healthy civil society.
A strong social network, or community, can provide emotional support during both good and bad times as well as access to jobs, services and other material opportunities. […] A weak social network can result in limited economic opportunities, a lack of contact with others, and eventually, feelings of isolation.
It’s a long time since I have seen such well-rounded reasoning for building strong and healthy communities, and how volunteering is part of that healthy status.
Volunteering NZ reviews other global and local reports which indicate a downward trend in volunteering and in monetary donations. No explanations for these trends are offered. Nor can I find explicit definitions of volunteering that informed the surveys.
In the week ahead I’m hoping to read some great stories about volunteers and volunteering, about the good experience they enjoyed, and the difference they made for people or the environment, and the fun they had in the process. I’m hoping there will be stories too about good relationships between paid staff and volunteers, and praise for staff who support volunteer effort. And that’s where the managers of volunteers might get a tiny acknowledgement.
And maybe, somewhere, even in a postscript, there will be a nod to the nature of volunteering, and what it represents, and why volunteering is important in our communities and within organisations. That is worth thinking about, in the course of this week.
May 18, 2014
Congratulations to Volunteering Australia who celebrated last week their 25th year of National Volunteer Week (NVW). That is some achievement. And always (as in New Zealand too, next month) it is a great opportunity to hold special events for acknowledging and saying ‘thank you’ to the thousands of people for their contributions and commitment to all parts of our communities.
This year the promotional theme for Australian volunteer-involving organisations was The Power of Volunteering. But forgive me, country cousins – I am trying to figure what you mean by ‘the power of volunteering’.
‘Power’ is a word I associate with leadership and influence, with strength and a force to reckon with, and with achievement and change. Given that volunteering/volunteerism operates along a continuum from political action to small informal volunteer groups pursuing community interest projects, what are the manifestations of strength and influence in the sphere of volunteering?
What change has resulted from street marches on poverty, domestic violence, or low-wage occupations? Will global protests really help to “Bring Back Our Girls”? Yes, there are a heap of good intentions in protest marches and demonstrations – but I cannot recall any direct political change from such actions. Even the constant pressure of protests in 1981 could not put a stop to the South African Rugby tour of New Zealand.
I am talking here about civic action, expressions of community interest, seeking change of some sort. But if nothing changes where is the power of this kind of volunteering?
Volunteer responses in times of disaster can achieve great things. I have written twice under the heading of People Power – in praise of the volunteer response to Christchurch earthquakes and the beach pollution of the Rena grounding. That’s the power of spontaneous collective action, based on humanitarian and environmental values. I’ve praised the staying power of volunteer fire-fighters who sustain their essential service, along with volunteers in other emergency services. That’s demonstrating the power of volunteer commitment.
It is different in everyday volunteer workforce contributions to community support services – environmental, education, disability, health and welfare, arts and leisure and sporting activities. Volunteering in these contexts is formalised, organised, programmed, contained – and constrained. By their numbers they are a powerhouse for the voluntary sector. But let’s not fool ourselves: volunteers are a utilitarian labour resource for organisations serving the interests of government, business, and community.
That is what we acknowledge during our National Volunteer Week. It is not the power of volunteering; it is the goodwill, the giving of time, energy, skills, and personal commitment to organisational missions and values that we wish to honour.
Yet there is a kind of power in the intrinsic benefits of volunteering, where volunteers gain for themselves. Engaging with an organisation can be a way of finding that sense of belonging in a community, of being respected. Volunteering can raise self-esteem, self-awareness and confidence, and don’t forget – volunteering is good for your health. Volunteering is attractive for people seeking work experience (whether as graduate interns or unemployed people), for developing skills, for migrants and refugees to improve language proficiency.
So while I have doubts about volunteering being a power of ‘irresistible force’, there is much to be said for the work of volunteers in the way it signifies a strong and healthy civil society.
May 4, 2014
In continuing the vein of last week’s blog, I am picking up on the distinction between formal and informal volunteer organisations. Because this is where Volunteer Centres might have got a bit stuck between the rock of government-funding obligations and the hard-place needs of organisations and communities, and the wider net of volunteering and community-led development.
Trends of recent decades have drawn the ‘formal volunteering sector’ into the market economy, into competition for services and project funding, has shaped activities to meet performance criteria, and has notched up business practice standards. Read the history of global developments in ‘volunteering infrastructure’ in this e-volunteerism article.
As we know, 90% of ‘voluntary organisations’ in New Zealand are not formally registered charities, and though most of them will have formal structures and purposes many fall outside the purview of government funding contracts. Thus we get a division in the community and voluntary sector, between NGOs and NFPs, even if the former are still non-profit organisations. In this broad-brush and diverse context the question is where best to place Volunteer Centre energies. Are they here for ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ organisations, or for volunteers? Of course in practice all three are important.
Volunteer Centres in New Zealand emerged independently around the country from the mid-1980s. Each one has a slightly different take on their vision and purpose which can be summarised as To promote, support and advocate for volunteering. In practice this allows for working and liaising with community organisations and local government. Supporting managers of volunteers comes with the territory, to ensure volunteers get a good experience and organisations understand and appreciate the work of volunteers. So the infrastructure is there, as a sound base to support volunteering. To offer a rounded ecosystem we should add in the work of engaging with business interests around employee volunteering (and sponsorship), and with philanthropic funders (for Centre funding as well as promoting volunteer causes).
It’s a huge mandate to cover all those interests, indicating Volunteer Centres are running a sophisticated consultancy business. But there are some questions a hard-headed auditor might want to ask:
- Why should funds be allocated for volunteer brokerage when there is potential for it to be adequately managed through an on-line programme?
- When national awards for volunteering are handed out how many of them go to individuals or organisations that have been supported by Volunteer Centres?
- How good are you (or other statistical surveys) at counting voluntary effort? Isn’t it time to get beyond counting to evaluating quality of the effort, and to capture the extent of ‘informal’ volunteering?
- If 34% of New Zealand’s population are engaged in volunteering, what would it take to raise that proportion to 40% or higher?
- Advocacy is specialist work – what successes can be reported on promoting volunteering with government (local and central) and philanthropists?
These are the questions Volunteer Centres could be addressing. See how Centres around the world are adapting to new environments in another article in e-volunteerism.
April 28, 2014
The current issue of e-volunteerism is devoted to the purpose and futures of Volunteer Centres. I’ve been reading the critiques and the caveats, and the challenges for a sustainable future, drawn from all around the (western) world.
There’s a tension between Volunteer Centres and managers of volunteers, say Susan J Ellis and Rob Jackson. VCs are competing with community organisations for funding; they are not working with basic community needs as much as they could; and they are slow to take up on-line technology that could cut across their traditional brokerage role. Changing times means VCs need to adapt to shifts in the way the world of the community and voluntary sector (and government policy) works.
For volunteering and Volunteer Centres the discussion is more than interesting reading. It has spurred me to reflect on my own connections and experiences with Volunteer Centres in New Zealand.
I get to read newsletters from around the country and to keep up with their Facebook posts. My direct experience is mostly with Volunteer Wellington. (It is their logo at the top of this post.) In my early days as a manager of volunteers their lunchtime training sessions were a life-saver, an opportunity to connect with other organisations and to share common experiences – and to learn from each other. More recently I have facilitated a few training sessions, still seeing managers of volunteers hungry for knowledge and skill development. Volunteer Wellington’s Employees in the Community programme is a boon for community organisations, not just for the work corporate businesses can offer. Their brokerage process avoids the embarrassment for managers of volunteers when unsolicited offers of assistance have to be declined – because you don’t have a job for them, and certainly not for large numbers at a time, or the request is to do something next week, if not tomorrow.
I have worked alongside VC managers on the Volunteering NZ project which produced the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations and Competencies for Managers of Volunteers. They know their stuff, the organisations they work with, and they whole-heartedly support the role and practice of managers of volunteers.
But how does the performance of Volunteer Centres in New Zealand stack up against the questions raised in e-volunteerism commentaries?
I have heard wary comments about engaging with on-line technology. The traditional process of brokerage based on face-to-face interviews and phone-call liaison with organisations risks getting side-stepped if there is ready access to an on-line database of volunteer opportunities. Yet local evidence suggests personal contact and meetings are highly productive for both prospective volunteers and for organisations.
Centres may not be taking full advantage of social media yet, and micro-volunteering appears to be a step too far at this stage. That’s begging the question of whether they are keeping up with other trends in volunteering, related to generational differences for example.
I have been impressed with Volunteer Wellington’s good relations with local government and their efforts to promote community engagement. They work hard to build on existing relationships with their members. But is this enough? Are they working on behalf of volunteers and volunteering, or for their member organisations? This is where I refer to the e-volunteerism commentary by Cees M. van den Bos (Netherlands). He describes the difference between formal and informal volunteering as ‘system world’ and ‘life world’, and makes a case for a broader outlook and strategic development to incorporate both. Here is the challenge for Volunteer Centres, to extend collaboration and make a shift to ‘community development’ practice models.
Volunteer Wellington’s statistics show they work with a wide age range and a variety of cultures which mirror the region’s ethnic population distribution. But it seems people of the 60+ age cohort go elsewhere to find volunteer opportunities, or they are failing to get engaged. It’s a pity the Centre’s record of working with disabled people is not publicly available.
My reflections draw on examples from Volunteer Wellington, though my comments are generalised. New Zealand’s contribution to the e-volunteerism article from Cheryll Martin extols Volunteer Centre achievements, and their range of activities. There is much to ponder from other commentators in the article, and nothing is more certain than significant change is imminent.
The e-volunteerism article opens with this statement: “Volunteer Centres are vital to build and sustain local and regional volunteer ecosystems”. I would like to think our small population and social interconnectedness creates advantages that will sustain volunteer ecosystems into the future.