January 26, 2016
The New Year has not rolled over with great optimism. There are more columns devoted to dealing with back-to-work blues than with 2016 opportunities. In the NFP sector organisations face another year of funding constraints, government expectations (and directives), and rising competition for securing contracts. Not to mention public concern for inequality, child poverty, housing shortages, the environment, and the implications of TPPA.
It looks like we are repeating Rousseau’s adage: Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains. The ethic of Fairness that has been a hallmark of New Zealand’s history is rapidly eroding, so it is no surprise to find a call to renew our social contract with government, specially in the light of the electorate’s disenchantment when it comes to exercising democratic voting rights.
Yet there is something else going on, almost under the radar. While the formal NFP sector wrings its hands, numbers of informal clusters of community groups and enterprises are increasing in response to social needs, community development initiatives continue to achieve their goals, and the ‘hand-up’ helping scene is thriving. As Colin Rochester has advocated, I am hearing the beat of a different drum.*
Statistics NZ has published results of its 2014 survey of social networks and support. In terms of how Kiwis connect 93% live in supportive neighbourhoods; 78% have friends living close by or in the same neighbourhood; around 64% belong to a club, group or organisation (we have long been known as ‘joiners’); and nearly all of us (97%) have at least one supportive family member. That looks like a pretty good level of social connectedness, despite poverty and poor living conditions for one in seven households in New Zealand. As active examples Neighbourly Facebook pages might be a digital means of communication, but it sure is an effective way to keep in touch with what is going on around your area, and about local resources. Inspiring Communities continue to facilitate community-led development, and to promote Neighbours’ Day. Time Banks are flourishing.
This ethic of reciprocity and a relationship economy is alive and well, and new and energetic small scale groups are proving their worth in social action. Some may not call such activity volunteering, yet it still involves unpaid time, energy and skills.
When it comes to donating money the World Giving Index 2015 rates New Zealand third, just behind Myanmar and the US. We are up two places from 2014, and the fourth most active nation for volunteering. Numbers donating money to charity rose by a significant 11%.
Has the press of poverty enhanced the giving spirit of Kiwis? Or is it due to the influence of Pay It Forward philosophy, the promotion of Giving Tuesday, Good Deeds Day and GiveALittle crowd-funding website? Well, we know about the health benefits of volunteering, and it seems giving money, like kindness, also has its own rewards. And more often than not volunteers are both time and money donors.
Yet word is that volunteer numbers have fallen in US by 3.5% in the last ten years, and by 5% in Australia over five years. (No recent information is available for New Zealand.)
It is time to pay more attention to the informal NFP sector, where effective volunteering doesn’t just happen: it’s based on the fundamentals of good relationships, a sense of community interdependence and a commitment to social action. There could be some valuable learning in a different approach to volunteering.
Rochester, Colin (2013) Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
November 30, 2014
This week there’s that global day to honour volunteers (IYV), and I’ll be joining the crowd in Wellington to hear our praises sung and the inspiring stories about volunteer journeys.
Right now there’s also a raft of KiwiBank medals being awarded throughout New Zealand to Local Heroes, those people doing extraordinary things in their local communities.
We’ve even got our own set of awards for Wellingtonians – the Welly’s – which include an award for Community Service.
And Volunteer Centre websites are carrying regular pages for Featured Volunteers, or Volunteer Testimonials, or Volunteer Profiles.
Fantastic! To shout out about volunteers and volunteering, and rewarding people for their service to a cause, or their creative initiative, or for the difference they have made in their communities – for all these reasons it’s important to ensure we give public recognition where it is due. A newspaper editorial (Dominion Post, November 22, 2014) puts it like this:
New Zealand has a long tradition of modesty. Not for us the big-noting of brasher cultures. Strutting, boasting celebrities who too often are all sizzle and no sausage are unwelcome. Instead, achievements should speak for themselves. Which is all well and good, but sometimes it is important to praise those among us who have succeeded.
Yes indeed. At last the Tall Poppy Syndrome is on the wane. We can get rid of that fateful Kiwi term, the Clobbering Machine. Some time ago I wanted to nominate a volunteer for an award, but the idea was vetoed because you can’t single out one volunteer, you must not imply that one is above the rest. So the whole volunteer programme misses out on being noticed, and neither is the impact of volunteering on community well-being.
Sometimes volunteering awards appear to be given out on the basis of length of service. Working for the same organisation for twenty or thirty years is admirable of course, but I hope it is the particular achievements over time that are being recognised, not just longevity and loyalty.
The citations of awards bring to public attention a great deal of the volunteer activity in our communities, including the whole range of volunteering fields – sport, working with youth or needy families and disabled people, a training course in prisons, emergency services, local communities and environment issues, or the arts. Recipients are also as diverse as the volunteer population: young people gain as many awards as older people; disabled people and an ethnic mix are included. These unsung heroes are our Tall Poppies, demonstrating what can be achieved.
So let us rejoice, and cheer on all volunteers – whether they win awards or not. Their stories need to be told, because here is all the raw data to illustrate the outcomes and impact of volunteering. Get the measuring process right, and we’ll be able to find out just how valuable volunteering can be.
Let’s keep on telling the stories and making sure the poppies grow tall.
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.