June 27, 2015
Volunteering is for anyone and everyone! That’s the celebrating we have been doing for this week. The theme for National Volunteer Week, as the banner says, is ‘There is a place for you to volunteer’, ‘He wahi mohou hei tuao’. And you just had to cast your eye over press releases and newspaper inserts and social media posts to notice how much volunteering is going on, and how widespread it is across our communities.
Volunteering is nothing less than diversity, in volunteer opportunities, the volunteers themselves, and in the impacts of volunteering.
There’s a young mum and her infant daughter who go visiting at a rest home; you can live a boyhood dream as an engine driver; there are countless opportunities to get outdoors into conservation projects; you can pay it forward in volunteering with emergency services or a health sector organisation; become a best buddy to people who want a bit more social contact; be the key support person to help a refugee family find a place in their community; try to make a dent in the effects of poverty or violence, or the abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Volunteers are found in schools and hospitals and all the big institutions. They keep sports clubs going, drive emergency services, environment and heritage conservation. They make national and local events and festivals the best ever. They just keep on keeping on, whatever and wherever. (You can read more about the importance of diversity in a volunteer programme here.)
Yes, you know all that.
Of course we are thanking volunteers every day, in all sorts of ways. But on this one week of the year, what are we thanking them for? The litany of platitudes still gets paraded:
Thanks to our wonderful volunteers
We couldn’t manage without you
We really need you
You help us make a difference (to what? I might ask)
Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organisation
Much better, and more enlightening, are the messages coming through that tell something of what volunteers do for the organisation:
Thank you to all the volunteers ….
…..who work hard to ensure safe, enjoyable experiences in New Zealand’s outdoors for us all.
…..for helping to give more than 4000 individuals and families a hand up during the past year.
…..for supporting skilled migrants in their search for meaningful work.
…..for giving someone a second chance at life.
…..for helping support a life without limits.
…..for skills in providing telephone advice and resources.
Yes, you know all that stuff too.
This year there is a lot more quoting of figures related to volunteer services. But oh dear, the wide variation makes me wonder what oracles were consulted for the information.
Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector says: “On average there are just over 400,000 kiwis volunteering every week for a charity, adding up to over 1.5 million hours contributed to our communities”.
Another report says nearly 500,000 people volunteer on a weekly basis; or 800,000 hours of work per week. This rate amounts to 15.5% of the population, per week. Per annum it is said 1.2 million people volunteer – about 25% of total population.
Different research methodology and different variables make for a confusing mix of information.
I have a bit more confidence in the Quarterly indicators from Department of Internal Affairs for September 2014 (the latest available):
- Nearly 35 per cent of all respondents volunteered at least one hour of their time. This is the highest volunteering rate of the five years measured.
- Of those who volunteered, 59 per cent were female and 41 per cent were male.
- People between the ages of 30-39 volunteered the most.
And now there is a brand new survey from Seek Volunteer New Zealand which sheds a poor light on Wellingtonians: under 19% of working Kiwis in the region currently volunteer, though 38% say they have volunteered previously. It’s the lack of time, say 69% of those surveyed. Volunteer Wellington issued a prompt response which tells a different story:
‘Of the approximately 3000 volunteer seekers who come through our matching processes every year, those in the ‘working’ (meaning in full-time employment and part-time) category, have increased over the past few years and is currently nearly a third of our total volunteer seeker cohort.’
‘Annually we work with between 800–1000 employee volunteers who are matched with any one of our 400+ community organisation members to be connected with projects of interest. Last year 87 such projects took place, ranging from physical work to skill based programmes and, with several of these employee volunteering teams, being involved on a weekly basis.’
So while we claim New Zealand has a culture that values and encourages volunteering we are not so good in getting our facts together, or at least determining a consistent base-line for data-gathering.
Small wonder that organisations are being pressed to deliver measurable outcomes for the services delivered through government contracts. At the beginning of June the Minister of Social Development announces a new Community Investment Strategy to “create a more results-focused and evidence-based approach for purchasing of social services for vulnerable people and communities, and will also be more transparent, targeted, flexible and efficient”. On the first day of National Volunteer Week a clear warning is issued that more funding cuts are on the horizon.
No question that community social service organisations are under threat. I’d like to think the prospect of significant change creates a real opportunity to put volunteering up where it belongs. Former Prime Minister Helen Clark understood the importance of volunteering when she said “without volunteers New Zealand would stop”. (She repeated the tenor of this comment on Twitter on International Volunteer Day in 2014, as head of UNDP).
Volunteering will not go away any time soon. The adaptations to changing conditions will continue, innovation and enterprise will keep on creating new ways of responding to diverse situations – as people have done for millennia.
Seek Volunteer NZ might have got its figures wrong, but they have produced excellent presentations of real volunteers and the reality of volunteering. And included is the best line of the whole week, said by a volunteer about her work, illustrating yet another dimension of volunteering – the personal value:
You can’t put a price on the feeling of what you can get out of it – you can’t.
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.
April 1, 2013
What do you reckon? How does your organisation rate for effectiveness in what it does? What is your performance rating? Can you ring the bell at the top of the scale? Bottom line question: what is the return to donors and funders for their investment in the services provided by your organisation?
There’s a global push these days to find answers to these questions, putting pressure on NGOs and NFPs to lift their game. Do not mistake me, I am all for demonstrating impact and effective social change, but why do I feel like a captured mouse being teased by the cat? Or like the caged big cats being whipped along by the circus ringmaster?
When you de-code the signals you can see how philanthropic donors and funder contracts are controlling and directing the community and voluntary sector environment. There’s a sinking lid on what we are allowed to do in the name of ‘charity’, as well as reduced funding. It’s like there is a takeover in progress, and we are letting it happen, being sucked into the ways and means of the public and private sectors. Corporate sponsorship and partnerships with business are attractive to get leverage and influence for social change, but how long before we are dancing to the whims of the corporation’s board? To the tune of the latest marketing programme? Or to the political good idea that gets turned into a statutory regulation?
The language of inputs / outputs / outcomes, of efficiency and effectiveness has been around in business for decades, and community and voluntary organisations have made efforts to record their work along these measures. But nothing is clear-cut, and I have yet to see a proven methodology for measuring outcomes and impact that works for the NFP sector.
Years ago I had to persuade a new manager who had come from a canning factory that disabled people were not cans of peas; they did not roll off an assembly line in neatly packaged ways; and really, there were multi-multiple factors to take into account in service planning and delivery, and in what could be counted as measures of ‘success’.
It’s still much the same these days. Consider Buddy or Befriending programmes for example – they are out there in organisations for the elderly, in mental health programmes, in services for disabled people, for de facto grand-parenting and parent support groups, and for disaffected youth. Think about the multiple stakeholders who could be involved in these services: funders and donors; the provider organisation; families; volunteers, and hello! the manager of volunteers who is responsible for making the programme work and best possible experience for the volunteer and for service users.
The impact of services like these goes in several directions. Families and individuals get support / advice / information to keep on keeping on and to take new leaps into the future. The organisation takes another step in fulfilling its mission, and maybe reporting to funders and donors on real achievements. Volunteers gain in their personal sense of well-being, and in health benefits. There are spin-off benefits for other health and welfare organisations, and for government services. Managers of volunteers can glow with pride when they see what a great team of volunteers they are leading and what they have achieved. The spread of impact goes way beyond performance indicators and a one-eyed review of measuring what the organisation does, even if we are not talking it up, or making formal assessment of achievements. That is Civil Society for you, a large amorphous collective that keeps on keeping our communities and societies keeping on.
We should not need to be reminded about the role and function of Civil Society. We should not need to recall there is a much larger view of the world than profit and loss accounts, of measuring outcomes and impact and social change. Civil Society is the third leg of the stool that vies for social harmony at local, national and global levels. As a significant part of Civil Society our community and voluntary sectors offer a countervailing force against the might and main of government and big business. Do not let us lose traction by succumbing to hard-nosed political dogma, nor in being seduced by the attractions of social enterprise or the lure of venture capital and other funding arrangements.
But do – please – let us work together to find ways to report on achievement, successes, volunteer stories, and what really works to create change. We – the community and voluntary sector, and the managers of volunteers – need to state our case, and to stake a claim in the politics of impact measurement.