June 8, 2014

The Business of Non-Profit Organisations

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Funding and Finance, Marketing, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , at 2:56 am by Sue Hine

People-first-300x300[1]I nearly bought myself into an argument recently, wanting to defend the claim “Charity organisations are different from a business”.  Now I have done some reflecting and marshalled the points I could have made at the time, as a kind of dialogue with myself.

Of course they are different, given the ‘for-profit’ and ‘non-profit’ labels.  But I have never liked the use of ‘charity’ in reference to non-profit organisations and NGOs.  The word has got too many connotations of ‘doing-to’ consumers/users/clients, as many a for-profit business operates.  I prefer the concept of ‘doing-with’ people – groups and individuals in the community.  When I hear concerns expressed about large nonprofits operating like corporate businesses I have to concede my opponents might have a point.

On the other hand it is not an unreasonable expectation that non-profits operate in a businesslike manner, especially in a contracting environment.  Of course non-profits need to be accountable for their financial management.   They also need to prove their value, to demonstrate outcomes and impact, or in current business-speak, to show a social return on investment.  And yes, they need to establish a strategic plan, set policy, outline the programmes and services they will deliver.

But still I cry: they are different from a business.  They do not exist to make a profit.   They deliver services, they fill a gap, provide for a need, or they offer opportunities for healthy lifestyles and leisure interests.  These organisations bring communities together, engage people in activities and actions outside the market-place.  Collectively the non-profit sector and its associations represent Civil Society, acting as a counter-balance to the weight of the private and public sectors.  Otherwise non-profits get swallowed up in politics and the economics of consumerism.

  • That does not excuse them from governance responsibilities and ensuring practice standards are maintained.

Of course not.  If they are not meeting expectations, if they are not offering an environment for member or volunteer satisfaction then the organisation will fold.  Non-profit organisations are different from businesses in their aims and obligations.  They began with a specific mission, and they hold particular values.

  • But so do business organisations. They are no different in holding statements on their vision, mission and values.

Yes, I am reminded of the snappy mission held by Canon: Beat Xerox!  That competition element is a big driver in business, always looking for that niche in the market, and to improve market share.   That is not the business of nonprofits!  Non-profit organisations tend to live by their vision and values.  In business these can be just words and not treated seriously, as the Enron history shows.  Not to mention the shady dealings of finance companies exposed in the Global Financial Crisis.

Non-profit organisations do not compete, they complement each other.  They are fulfilling particular needs for a specific community, at a particular time and place.  And there is much more focus on collaboration, working together and sharing information.  Businesses work to protect their intellectual property and ensure their bottom line is always a good one.

  • And so we should! If it wasn’t for business and our ability to create profits and pay taxes non-profit organisations would not be ‘in business’.

Now you are getting narky.  And also highlighting the fundamental difference between business and non-profit organisations.  Put it this way: business is about making monetary profits which go to shareholders, the investors.  The profit for a non-profit organisation is the benefits and gains seen in community and individual well-being, and in the contributions of a well-run volunteer programme.  That’s why it’s important that we stay different.

You are still not convinced?  Yes, there is plenty more ground to cover in this debate.  What would you have to say?

 

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May 18, 2014

The Power of Volunteering

Posted in Celebrations, Civil Society, Language, Leadership, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:05 am by Sue Hine

8[2]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

Volunteer Centre Realities

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Politics of volunteering, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , , at 5:00 am by Sue Hine

partnership-trees[1]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 Volunteer Centre Experience

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Managing Change, Politics of volunteering, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , at 12:01 am by Sue Hine

 

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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.

March 30, 2014

All About Community

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Celebrations, Civil Society, Language, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , , at 3:02 am by Sue Hine

High%20res%20logo%20no%20date[1] This weekend ‘Neighbours Day’ was celebrated throughout New Zealand Aotearoa. Two days of street parties, suburban fairs and celebrations – and they will continue throughout the coming week. I went to a party hosted on my suburb’s community marae, Nga Hau e Wha o Papararangi. City Council dignitaries and the local MP attended and addressed participants. There was entertainment and games, a hangi, and display stalls from local organisations.

Why would we need a week-long event to get to know our neighbours? Well, it matters, says the blurb on the Neighbours’ Day website, because:

Through fostering better connected neighbourhoods and more everyday ‘neighbourliness’, Kiwi communities can be stronger and more resilient and the wellbeing of individuals, family/whanau and community will be significantly enhanced.

Yes – I understand the importance of resilience and wellbeing: security for our citizenry is a matter of public policy. Yes – I know we are many generations distant from the days of closed communities and in-grained neighbourliness. But I wish we could pay more attention to what we mean by ‘community’.

That word ‘community’ carries a whole lot of baggage, has thousands of applications and is freely used and abused.

As a generalised reference ‘the community’ is so vague and broad the term becomes meaningless. ‘The Community and Voluntary Sector’ is likewise a broad-brush term, but at least we can understand it in relation to the Public and Private Sectors – though we too often forget that people engaged in the latter are also members of ‘the community’.

Community organisations can talk up ‘Community Engagement’, without recognising they are part of that community themselves. Governments also like to engage with communities to consult on new policies, though the outcome of consultation is not always to the community’s liking.

Let us also acknowledge the diversity of the Community and Voluntary Sector. We refer to NGOs and NFPs, to community groups and associations and to charities.* Let us note that the Voluntary sector serves the community – that is, serves a particular community of interest. And it’s this range of interests that we ignore when we refer to them with the blanket term ‘community’.

Trouble is, says a local political commentator, our sense of community has withered because of diversity. He is referring to the decline of ‘people like me’ sense of community in favour of the unequal relations of ‘us and them’. There we have yet another interpretation of ‘community’ where you can be either in, or out.

Social and political histories point to the division of labour, the evolution of the state, the development of mass urban society as significant contributions to the fragmentation of our sense of ‘community’. At the same time the human aspiration of being and belonging has not gone away. The idea of ‘community’ is a contrast to the impersonality of large scale organisation, whether it is political, economic or social: we use ‘community’ as a counterpoint to the alienation of modern life. **

My Neighbours Day gathering brought out nostalgic reminiscences for the old days, the time before urban migration and mobility of the latter half of the 20th century, before the busyness of modern living kicked in, before health and safety regulations proscribed the freedoms we enjoyed in childhood. There is no going back, even though we cling to the old ideas. Neighbours Day activities remind us there are still new ways to interpret new meanings of ‘community’.

…………….

* For classification of New Zealand’s non-profit sector see this publication.

** See Plant, Raymond (1974) Community and Ideology, an Essay in Applied Social Philosophy London: Routledge, Keegan Paul Ltd.

March 2, 2014

Ask a Silly Question…

Posted in Civil Society, Language, Motivation, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:00 am by Sue Hine

questions_thumb[1][1]I’ve written quite a lot about definitions and meanings of ‘volunteering’ over my blogging years.  And I have to keep thinking about questions of ‘who is a volunteer’ as the word’s connotations expand to embrace corporate volunteering, internships and community service.  Now I have been snared yet again into debating with myself about the work I have been doing this week.

For the past few days I have been helping my daughter get her house in order for putting it up for sale.  She did not ask for my help: I offered.  I did not receive any monetary payment.  I gave my time freely without expectations of reward.  I gained enormous satisfaction from cleaning up the garden and washing windows, and seeing the improvements I achieved.  And I toned up a lot of muscles I hadn’t used in a while.  I got lots of hugs of appreciation.  I would volunteer likewise for friends and neighbours too.  And I have done the same sort of work when engaged as a volunteer for an organisation supporting new settlers in my community.

By many accounts, what I have described fits generally accepted criteria for ‘volunteering’ – except when I go looking, I find variations in definitions and additional conditions to determine the use of ‘volunteer’.

Volunteering England would exclude my efforts to help my daughter from definitions of volunteering.  It’s ‘informal volunteering’, which extends to all such unpaid help to someone who is not a relative.

So I need to understand there is a distinction between being a ‘helper’ and a ‘volunteer’, and a  formal / informal dichotomy of volunteering, even when I am doing the same sort of work.

Volunteering Australia goes further, in restricting ‘formal’ volunteering to an activity which takes place through not-for-profit organisations, and in designated volunteer positions only.  That sounds like a higher status is attached to formal volunteering.  Or, that the work I used to do freely and on my own initiative in my local community has become institutionalised as an economic resource, as unpaid labour.

That’s when warning signs light up contradictions.  NGO contracts with government rarely include funding for the costs of volunteer programmes, like a manager’s salary or reimbursement for volunteer out-of-pocket expenses.  Neither does ‘formal volunteering’ guarantee recognition and status for volunteers and the manager of the volunteer programme within the organisation.

In the meantime my informal volunteering continues to go un-noticed and uncounted.  A colleague reminded me of the words ‘natural support’ to describe all that child-rearing, house-keeping, befriending, good neighbourliness that goes on and on in our communities.  So if all that volunteering is ‘natural’, does that mean there is something ‘unnatural’ about formal volunteering?  That might sound flippant, but I have to ask the question.

One place where volunteering is not designated formal or informal is the data collected during a Census.  In New Zealand we are asked to record details about ‘unpaid work’, those activities performed in the four weeks before the census date, without payment, for people living either in the same household, or outside.  Statistics NZ describe volunteering as:

“Voluntary work supports groups and organisations whose activities contribute to social well-being. Volunteers give their time and skills to help others and give back to their community.”

Maybe this description is too simplistic for purists.  Yet the concept of ‘unpaid work’ enables an overall account of the scope of freely given activity in our communities wherever and however it occurs.  ‘Formal volunteering’ is a label that has evolved with the growth of the NGO sector.  It is a pity that institutional understanding and appreciation of volunteering and its management within organisations has not grown with the label.

Some years ago Andy Fryar raised similar questions about definitions of volunteering:

  • Why do we continually have to define volunteering only within the constraints of ‘formal’ volunteering?
  • Why can’t we create a definition that covers all types of volunteer involvement?

These questions are not so silly, and there are no easy or even silly answers.  We are continually tripped by meanings attached to different types of volunteer involvement.  It’s worth having a look at Volunteering Vocabulary (see inset p5) to see how many ways there are to use ‘volunteer’.

‘Volunteering’ is a word that has grown in use and expanded in meaning alongside social, political and economic change in our communities.  To confine ‘freely given time, skills and energy for the common good’ within the boundaries of a rigid definition could restrict our willingness to give so freely.

February 9, 2014

Why Involve Volunteers?

Posted in Best Practice, Civil Society, Marketing, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 2:17 am by Sue Hine

definitionAsk a reasonable question about why volunteers are involved in non-profit organisations and don’t be surprised if the answer is To Save Money!  It’s there in writing as well, in comments about budget constraints which ‘increase reliance on volunteer support’, and in ‘saving on administration costs’.

Annual Reports can include acknowledgement of volunteer numbers and hours contributed translated into monetary value, but rarely any analysis or demonstration of why they are valued and important for the organisation.

This money thing really gets in the way of thinking about volunteers and understanding volunteering.

The people who claim ‘volunteers are priceless’ have not looked at the costs of running a volunteer programme.  Somebody should be adding up expenditure on recruitment and training, provision of support and supervision, functions for recognition of volunteer work, and reimbursement of expenses.  Hang on, why should we reimburse volunteer expenses?  Paid employees don’t get reimbursed for travelling to work, nor their parking fees!

When I hear about organisations saving money by using volunteers I am hearing ‘exploitation’.  To ‘use’ volunteers is close to ‘abusing’ their goodwill, and their time and their talents.

If the budget shortfall really means increasing volunteer support what extra work will they do?  Taking up jobs that used to be paid? That would mean relaxing some of the current rules that limit volunteer roles like a ban on undertaking personal cares for frail and vulnerable people or the constraints of safety boundaries.  And let’s not overlook a potential backlash from worker associations.

What is it that so many people need to understand about volunteering?

For starters, ‘volunteering’ is a modern-day term for an ancient human practice that provided mutual support and protection for the collective group, binding people within their communities.  These days we call it ‘Civil Society’, denoting all those activities that bring people together to pursue their mutual interests.  Volunteering is noted for its diversity and the wide fields of interests, for large national organisations and small informal and local groups.  These days, volunteering is a means for community engagement, for maintaining social relations and stability.  Volunteering is also the agency to promote a cause, to bring enlightenment and create change.

So when we get down to organisation level, to the place that employs paid staff, what’s the point of volunteering, if it is not to save money?  Here are some pointers to finding an answer:

  • At a basic level, volunteer assistance will support staff and enable them to focus on specialist responsibilities.
  • Volunteers help to create a positive image of the organisation in the community.  As ambassadors they can be a real asset, attracting donors and more volunteers, and being the best-ever marketing agents.  (Or, as the worst-ever critics, they could be your biggest liability.)
  • Volunteers can bring new insights, energy and time to the organisation.  It was probably volunteer enthusiasm and commitment that got it started in the first place. So why not harness that energy to develop and trial new strategies or processes, to push the envelope beyond existing limits.  The voluntary sector needs a research and development function as much as manufacturing corporations.
  • When volunteers bring a diverse range of skills and experience they enrich the organisation, and help expand community connections which can extend the reach of organisation services.
  • At best, volunteers offer added value to the organisation’s vision and contribute to achieving its mission.

These are general points, and will need to be tailored to organisation specifics.  More importantly, getting to grips with the real reasons for volunteer involvement will mean you never have to say ‘volunteers are priceless’ or that they save you money.  And, you’ll find the words and phrases to give real meaning to volunteering.

June 16, 2013

Volunteer Recognition (3) Why?

Posted in Celebrations, Civil Society, Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:05 am by Sue Hine

NVW-2013-Facebook-banner-1-FINAL

National Volunteer Week is upon us.  The stories about volunteers will unfold through newspaper spreads and press releases, and celebratory functions will be held all over the country.

This feast for volunteering goes international every year, and now it is New Zealand’s turn.  Here, Volunteer Awareness Week has morphed into National Volunteer Week, taking a broader account of the ‘volunteer industry’.   In Wellington corporate volunteering gets due recognition for example, and there are at least a couple of workshops specially to support managers of volunteers.  Watch out for Volunteering New Zealand’s latest innovation: a daily webinar on different topics related to volunteering.

Why do we do this, every year?  What’s the rationale for putting such energy and expense into appreciating volunteers and the business of supporting volunteering, for one week every year?

I could presume we do this because:

  • Volunteers and volunteering are ignored the rest of the year
  • The news media don’t give much attention to good news stories
  • Organisations are focused on service delivery and overlook how much the work of volunteers contribute to those services on a regular basis
  • Any excuse for a party!
  • Opportunity for self-promotion of organisations and Volunteer Centres
  • It’s a great exercise to recruit more volunteers to the ranks

There might be some elements of truth here, but not enough to justify an annual blast of publicity.  We do a great deal of appreciation and recognition throughout the year, in large and small ways, both publicly and privately.  So why do we still need to hold an annual week in praise of volunteering?

I’m having trouble finding rational answers to this question, specially when I hear volunteers saying:

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.

If volunteering is so every-day and ordinary, so much part of our lifeblood, why the need for an annual fanfare?

Maybe the point about recruiting more volunteers is a good enough reason, because total volunteer numbers represent only one third of our population (though the data is probably under-reported).  Because many organisations find they are constantly short on volunteers, and long in demand of services provided by volunteers.  It’s not unreasonable to showcase opportunities to attract interest in volunteering – except recruitment and retention of volunteers is an on-going practice which cannot be left to an annual drive.

Maybe a promotional week is something bigger than the detail of recruitment and recognition.  Maybe it’s the real opportunity to remind people about values of community, service, and the importance of Civil Society.  We might be labelled as non-government or non-profit organisations, and relegated to the less-than-noble title of Third Sector, but by heck if we were not around the political and economic sectors would be missing the third leg of the stool that represents the sort of society we enjoy.

Maybe it is coincidence that CIVICUS has published a new report on the role that civil society plays and the conditions that enable it to do so.  It is certainly timely.

Civil society plays multiple roles. We bring people together. We encourage debate, dialogue and consensus building. We research, analyse, document, publish and promote knowledge and learning. We develop, articulate and seek to advance solutions to problems. We engage with people and organisations in other spheres, such as government and business, to try to advance and implement solutions. We directly deliver services to those who need them.  Sometimes we do all of these things at once. We need to assert that these are all legitimate civil society roles.  [p 33]

This is what we do, all year, every year – right?  And if you, as an organisation or as a volunteer, are struggling to be heard – take heart that you are not alone in the world:

The value that civil society brings always needs to be proved, documented and promoted – and the argument for civil society continually made: “While the assumption of the need for strong government and private sectors is today generally not questioned, the need for a strong civil society is not always so readily assumed.”  [p44]

The report is worth reading in full to appreciate the global trends we are experiencing in New Zealand.

Maybe there is no definitive explanation for holding a National Volunteer Week.  For now and for this week all I need to know is the answer to the question : What is the most important thing in the world?  He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!  That is the start and the end-point of volunteering and community development, and of Civil Society.  It is people!

May 12, 2013

A Shift in the Wind

Posted in Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Politics of volunteering, Role definition, volunteer experience tagged , , , , at 5:35 am by Sue Hine

sailing-3[1]Earlier this week Volunteering New Zealand issued an invitation on FaceBook to consider the ethos of volunteering and the meaning of ‘giving time’ for the common good.  It was in response to a news item about Christchurch youth who had pledged four hours of volunteering in return for tickets to a music festival –The Concert – held late last year.  Except around 600 pledges have not been fulfilled, and according to the terms and conditions of the pledge (clearly stated) they are to be named and shamed.  They can expect to be outed on The Concert’s website.

There is absolutely no doubt the people who have participated in Student Army projects deserve recognition and a thanksgiving for the work they have been doing in quake-ravaged Christchurch.  From all accounts the concert was a great success.

The website includes clear information on whys and wherefores, including a FAQ section which defines volunteering as performing a service freely and for no charge.

Here’s the rub.  There may be no fees for volunteering, though there is always an opportunity cost for the donation of time.  The pay-back for that time can be offered in a huge number of ways, from a regular smile and ‘thank you’ to formal functions and speechifying, not to mention a lot of feel-good factors and personal gains.  But to offer a tangible (and highly desirable) carrot suggests the volunteering response is not given altogether freely.  What to do when the offer is not fulfilled?  Just let it go and mumble-mumble about free-loaders, or do the public name-and-shame?  To be fair, the 600 unfulfilled pledges represent only 7.5% of the 8000 people who created 50,000 hours of volunteer service.  And if they are outed, will public humiliation put them off volunteering for ever?  Will that matter?   Is going public with non-volunteering so different from the bad-mouthing that a poorly- managed volunteer programme can attract?

Alternatively, will volunteers elsewhere now expect enticing carrots when they offer their time, something a bit beyond the annual Christmas party?

Let me add these questions to voluntary sector conditions I have been noting in my posts in recent months:

  • A Register for violations of Volunteer Rights is suggested for Australia.  (Leading to a Union of Volunteers, as one comment has suggested?)
  • A major event is politicised to create a legacy for volunteering, to the point where £5million Lottery Funds are allocated “to be spent on Olympic inspired volunteering schemes”.
  • New ways to fund and provide social services (Social Bonds, Social Finance) are being discussed, without consideration of volunteer input.
  • Lack of understanding and appreciation of volunteers and the potential of volunteering are highlighted in recent academic research.
  • The focus on measuring social service impact and outcomes is not doing any favours for volunteering, specially where the quality of relationships makes the critical difference to outcomes for individuals.
  • The rise of Obligatory Volunteering is also evident, including internships, compulsory community service and conditional welfare entitlements.  Which is where the Christchurch Concert pledge fits in:  ‘free will’ is not so free after all.
  • Corporate responsibility and ‘workplace volunteering’ can sometimes be more self-serving than real social responsibility.
  • In addition we should take into account trends in volunteer preferences, like micro-volunteering, time-limited and task-focused assignments, and time-banking.

There we have a heap of shifts in practice to impact on the ethos of volunteering, and many of them influenced by Government directives.   Government is even supporting a new approach to community development with funding and advice.  It is disappointing to see how the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector is ignoring the long history and proud achievements of ‘community-led development’ that happens without any form of government intervention.

So it seems the ethos of volunteering has enlarged its sphere to include more formalised, more structured practice, and a variety of practice modes.  Volunteering is certainly less central to service delivery for many NGOs than the volunteering I grew up with, decades ago.  That’s OK – nothing is forever, and I’m getting used to living with constant change, in organisations and in volunteering.

But, and it’s a big but: formalised volunteering programmes, complete with policies and professional management of volunteers, are pretty small bikkies in NFP statistics.  Ninety per cent of volunteer organisations in New Zealand do not employ paid staff.  Think about it: that’s close to 90,000 organisations that do their own thing, working in their communities for the common good, and doing good, pitching in where needs must, scratching for funds, and keeping  their services going anyway.

So the ethos of volunteering, performing a service freely and for no charge, has not gone away.  It has just got a bit larger.  Denouncing volunteers who do not fulfil commitments is not yet within the boundaries of regular practice, not yet in the spirit of volunteering, even though volunteers are free to tarnish an organisation’s reputation if they don’t get the experience they expect.

As any yachtie knows, a shift in the wind means you have to trim the sails, and adjust the course to make the most of the wind-power.  That’s the excitement of sailing, being at the mercy of wind and ocean currents, and mastering your way around these forces.  Volunteering can shift with the wind too, yet will keep enough of its core to maintain a true course.

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