March 2, 2014
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.
October 27, 2013
News headlines this week have not been pretty stories. Blue Mountain country in New South Wales (Australia) has been devastated by the worst bush fires in forty-five years. The pictures of a wall of flame are succeeded by burnt-out homes and grieving residents. Acres of bush are laid waste.
The Rural Fire Service has rightly won praise and gratitude for its heroic efforts, working 12-hour shifts and staying overnight in dense bushland when required, snatching a rest when they can. Need I add that most of them are volunteers?
I don’t think I would make a good fireman. I’d have to get really fit, do hard yards at training, and wear all that clobber, and work long hours mostly at unfriendly times, cope with emotional and distraught people and be involved in those big disasters that turn up without warning. It’s a big commitment.
Only twice in my volunteering career have I been asked to commit to a minimum length of service. One was for two years, and another for just six months. The latter, in reality, was just time to complete the basic assignment, and it took another two years before it was really done. I’ve no doubt the rationale was to ensure a return from the investment in training and support, and to send a message that this was not a fly-by-night undertaking.
Should we spell out expectations for length of volunteer service?
The stories of loyal and long-serving volunteers are legend. It is not unusual to find people who have been working for the same organisation for twenty-five or thirty years. When people resign within five years it is usually for legitimate reasons: going overseas, relocating to another town, a change of employment, having babies, or a family crisis.
We all know what keeps volunteers keeping on, so my observations suggest we are doing things right: ensure volunteers enjoy a good experience with your organisation and they will stay loyal and enthusiastic. That ‘good experience’ may vary according to organisation mission and the work of the volunteer programme.
Key indicators to maintain volunteer commitment would include:
- Philosophy and policies that integrate volunteers throughout the organisation
- Good relations with staff and senior management
- Strong relationship with the manager of volunteers
- Congruence between personal values and organisation mission and values
- Ongoing communication, in various forms
- Options for skill development
- Recognition and rewards that highlight non-monetary value of volunteer contributions
Now I start thinking about that trend noted over the past couple of years, that preference for time-limited, task-focussed volunteering. Sure, this sort of volunteering has always been available, particularly for fund-raising or events and projects, and a creative manager of volunteers knows how to find ways to engage a skilled volunteer for a few weeks or months.
I am not hearing about increases in turnover of volunteers, but if that should happen – if there is a fall-off in staying power – then prospects could be dire for volunteer programmes based around on-going services and relationships. I can’t imagine a volunteer fireman being taken on for a six month stint. Nor a volunteer for ambulance services, or civil defence. Short-term volunteering would make unviable those programmes that revolve around support relationships and befriending vulnerable people.
Or does the interest in short-term volunteering stem from the rise of practical motivations, like graduate internships, work experience, ‘obligatory’ volunteering and corporate volunteering? Is it attracting a different sort of volunteer from the stayers?
Should I be worried?
August 11, 2013
There are always stories to tell after travel adventures. I did not go looking for volunteers and volunteering on my recent OE, but the following tale was overheard during a long day on the bus. It was related by a big man with a big voice. We all got to hear what he had to say.
I retired about five years ago. Best thing I ever did. I’ve got my hobbies and I go travelling pretty much every year. I don’t miss the grind of work a jot. Some people say I should be doing some volunteering: no way! I’m not going in to do drudge work to help an organisation save a bit of money. If I am going to volunteer I want to make sure it’s for a mission I believe in and want to help.
Right on, I said to myself. That’s the way most people are getting involved in volunteering these days. After all, volunteering is always about giving time freely and willingly, right?
Hmmm…. Free Will is something philosophers have been debating for centuries. Does free choice really exist alongside all the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ learned during our childhood and reinforced throughout a lifetime?
For quite a while now it has been clear that the free will of volunteering can be generated by self-interest. I want some work experience, some credits for my study courses, to get out of the house and enjoy some company, to help me learn about my new community, or to practice speaking English. About the only real freedom is in engaging with an organisation of my own choosing. Even those sentenced to Community Service (mandatory volunteering) are able to select where they will work out their time.
The ethics of Duty, Obligation and Civic Responsibility do not feature in our language so much these days. A recent research publication records the decline over the past two hundred years in the use of words linked to duty and obligation, while words linked to individualism and materialism have increased. This shift in our mind-sets, says the psychologist researcher, reflects the socio-cultural changes effected by urbanisation, universal education and technology. It’s also worth noting how volunteering has become more formalised and structured – and the emergence of professional standards for management practice.
When motivation is a matter of self-interest Free Will can still get exercised in selecting an organisation for volunteer effort – though self-interest carries a responsibility to ensure our expectations match the organisation goals and the available volunteer roles. I would hope recruitment and orientation procedures would help ensure an appropriate match between organisation and aspiring volunteer. And if the organisation and the volunteer programme offer the best possible experience then further volunteering is encouraged.
So let us not get precious about definitions and the different paths that bring people to volunteering. Language changes, and the way we think and behave and relate to our environment and in our communities will continue to change over time.
April 28, 2013
Volunteers in action, London Olympics; RWC 2011 in New Zealand
No – this is not the last will and testament of volunteering, nor an obituary of the dynamic and thriving social activities in our communities. But I do have something to say about the expectations of long-term outcomes for volunteering at major events.
This week there are media reports from the UK headlining Legacy of London 2012 volunteers is ‘fizzling out’, and declaring there is “no clear plan for capitalising on the contribution Games Makers can make to other volunteering initiatives”.
Like the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in 2011, the London Games engaged volunteers (70,000 of them) who made a huge contribution to the success of the Games. There are lessons here for all of us, about event management – especially the volunteer programme, about long-term volunteer outcomes – especially around volunteer engagement and retention, and about ‘the legacy’.
Talk of the London Legacy began early, some five years before the Games began. There were promises declared, including the intention to “inspire a generation of young people to take part in local volunteering, cultural and physical activity”. The knowledge, skills and experience of managers of volunteers did not rate a mention. Defining a legacy was, I suppose, a way to justify the huge expenditure on hosting the Olympics, and to indicate there would be some return on the investment.
There have been reams of commentary, before and since the Games. One volunteer sector writer notes the shortcomings in the planning and management of the volunteer programme, and prefers to describe what was learned from the Games rather than extolling the Legacy. Another identifies the hurdles for sustaining a legacy on the volunteer front, namely ignoring basic principles of volunteer recruitment and retention.
Like the London Games, oversight of the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand was also a government responsibility, though much of the leg-work was done by the NZRU and Sport NZ. Leaders in the community sector were disappointed they were not consulted or directly involved in the planning for the volunteer programme. But it turned out well-planned and well-managed, and a huge success for the tournament, for the visitors and rugby supporters, and for the volunteers.
And, we’ve got the evidence, because research on the event was commissioned right at the start to monitor volunteer experiences. Six months after the event the survey indicates there may be positive impacts on future volunteering, though less impact on sports participation. There have also been positive outcomes for youth, and potential social benefits as volunteers keep in touch with friends they have made. A further follow-up report is due in the near future.
In the UK results of a recent survey are less promising. Only 2 per cent of adults have started volunteering since the Olympic Games; 70 per cent do not want to start, or do more volunteering.
Legacy? What Legacy? We are not talking about something that is gifted in a will, nor about a ‘baton’ being handed on to others even though there is no doubt volunteers will carry good memories of their experience for a long time.
“To be involved and a part of the ABs Victory Parade the day after the final – the public accolade the volunteers received was overwhelming!! A magical, historical day I will never forget!!!”
“My participation as a volunteer in the RCW is the best contribution to my family, community, and New Zealand as a whole.”
The Victory Parade is an emotional triumph for Volunteers
But is a major national event really an occasion to showcase volunteering and attract new recruits? Surely it was more about New Zealand winning that Cup!
I have been on the sharp end of event management a few times. I know about chaos and stress and long hours, and about the glow of success. More important is what I have learned about the support, enthusiasm and dedication shown by volunteers in their commitment to the project. They’ll go for it, 100%, and they will revel in the occasion and appreciate the ‘after-match’ party. Most will agree to be kept on the database for another time but will drift away if there is no ongoing communication and contact. Very few will come forward to ask about other volunteer opportunities.
This is not an issue of retention. We do not hold these events as a recruitment drive for long-term engagement. That’s unrealistic when current trends are showing short-term task-focussed assignments are preferred. After all the hype and excitement of a major national or local event the options for ordinary volunteering will seem somewhat pedestrian. I would sooner we acknowledged there are sprinters and there are marathon runners; there are horses for different courses, and (dragging out that old cliché again) one size does not fit all volunteers.
Volunteers I know do not think of their achievements at events or in their work for community-based services in terms of legacies. I do not regard my volunteering experience as a bequest from my parents’ example. It is simply something I choose because I belong in a community. That is the real nature of volunteering.
March 10, 2013
Last weekend I followed my Sunday habit to visit the fruit and vegetable market held at the local primary school. You have to admire the enterprise of schools these days for hiring out their space and facilities to Churches, Sunday sports for kids, and for the market. That’s what you have to do to maintain a cash-strapped “free” education.
At the school entry I encountered a woman struggling to open the security gate. The gate had been a puzzle for me on previous weeks but I had it sorted now. I opened the gate for the woman and remarked “We never had to master this sort of barrier when we went to school”. The woman nodded vigorously, acknowledging both the import of my comment and our shared age bracket.
I went on up the path, the back entrance to the school. There was another security gate to gain access to classroom areas and the market stalls.
The gates were not so big they could not be opened by the average-sized six or seven year old child standing on tip-toes. They offered more of an impediment than a barrier, and certainly no real obstacle to adult visitors. But when a couple of four year old boys leave their day-care centre their adventure is called an ‘escape’. From what, you might ask.
I start thinking, again. I am really bothered that we have become so dependent on legislation and regulations around hazards and safety precautions that kids these days never get to use their instincts for self-preservation, never learn to evaluate risk and the limits on their own capacity. It’s all done for them by adults who bend over backwards to ensure nothing bad happens. No wonder teenagers think they are bullet-proof when they get behind the wheel of a car, or get tanked-up to go on the town.
The community sector is also plagued by regulation, as I described a few months back. Volunteers are known to become tetchy when restrictions seem unreasonable. Over the past ten years I have noticed a creep of limitations placed on the roles and tasks of volunteers: can’t have them doing personal cares for people in a clinical setting; huge risks if you let volunteers loose on Facebook; volunteers are not the same as staff; can’t ask them to do extra; but we’ll keep them on to work the phones and do the cleaning.
I exaggerate, just a little. For all the stories of restrictions there are also accounts of volunteers going beyond the call of duty, and many times we can see how collective volunteer actions have created a community fabric.
You see, that’s the bounty of volunteering. Volunteers get up and go, they can experiment with new ideas and different ways of doing things. They see a need or a gap in community services and they are free and flexible enough to devise an immediate and sometimes a long-term response to the presenting problem. They are risk-takers, big-time. That’s how our major NGOs and NFPs got started in the first place – read their histories.
So please, do not wrap volunteers in cotton-wool. Give them credit for intelligence and sensitivity and responsibility, and especially for their humanity. Give them space to be innovative and creative in the best tradition of community development. And remember that ‘humanity’ involves trust and respect and dignity – qualities that are never going to be measurable in pursuit of volunteer impact, yet can be diminished by over-regulation.
Perhaps I should have titled this piece ‘Stretching Boundaries’. I do not wish to make light of school security, nor of the tragedies that have created the armoury of protection for students and stringent screening for visitors. Nor am I suggesting volunteering should be turned into a laissez-faire free-for-all. I just want to make sure that too much bureaucracy does not shut down the whole point of volunteering.
November 25, 2012
Scenario: you are interviewing a candidate for a position to manage volunteers, and you want to check out the level of passion they would bring to the role. How would you frame the questions?
I am not looking for answers right now. I’m going off on a tangent to investigate the meanings of ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’. I want to question why these words should feature so frequently in the context of volunteering.
They turn up in promotional material, in organisation newsletters and in recruitment adverts. ‘Thank you’ speeches at Volunteer recognition functions are peppered with references to appreciation for volunteers’ ‘passion’. Volunteer Centres and national umbrella organisations and even international leaders in our field find ways to insert ‘passion’ and ‘passionate’ into their writing. Even government publications don’t shy away from such emotive language where volunteers are involved.
Here are a few examples of slogans you can find without looking very far:
Show us your passion
Your passion, our nation, volunteer now!
Volunteer leadership is “passion management.”
They are examples of language used to attract and encourage volunteering, and to proclaim the good intentions and aspirations of managers of volunteers.
‘Passion’ means an intense desire or enthusiasm for something. It comes from the Latin word pati meaning ‘to suffer’. OK, I know how ‘intense desire’ can be experienced as suffering, though this interpretation is better applied outside the province of volunteering and management of volunteers, despite frustrations experienced too often by the latter. The passion of volunteering and the management of volunteer services is more about ‘intense enthusiasm’.
There is nothing the matter with being passionate, and to be fair, the word is also prominent in the for-profit sector. But we do need to be clear what we mean, otherwise the word becomes a cliché and its currency devalued. ‘Passion’ risks turning into a platitude, like ‘commitment’ and ‘making a difference’. ‘Passion’ is a word too big and too important to turn into a shorthand slogan.
When we use ‘passion’ and ‘volunteering’ in the same breath we are referring to values held about people and communities and belonging and relationships, about service and mutual support, and about meeting needs. Values are those beliefs and principles that are prized and cherished, and they are demonstrated every day in our behaviour. We don’t have to declare we are passionate about volunteering: we can show you, all the time.
Being passionate about volunteering is relative to the cause of the organisation and its mission. That’s how many a community organisation started in the first place. Of course these days people can be more pragmatic about why they volunteer, yet there’s many a story about less-than-enthusiastic volunteers finding their ‘passion’ and becoming ardent supporters of an organisation.
Why should ‘passion’ be an important attribute for managers of volunteers? For starters you have to be pretty keen (if not ‘intensely enthusiastic’) about volunteering to make the most of the position. Passion contributes to raised performance standards, job satisfaction, and effective leadership of volunteers – which may include harnessing their passion when it becomes indiscriminate. Sometimes passion is needed in gaining a recognised stake in the organisation.
But what if you overplay your hand? There’s a fine line between being enthusiastic and becoming a fanatic. It’s a line between getting people to listen to well-reasoned arguments and in the way the emotional speech can turn into an eye-rolling, here-she-goes-again response. Too much overt passion can end up like Oscar Wilde’s aphorism: Each man kills the thing he loves.
So when it comes to interviewing prospective managers of volunteers I would be steering away from emotional rhetoric and asking about practical applications. Examples of practice will demonstrate just how ‘committed’ to ‘making a difference’ and the degree of ‘passion’ is held by the candidate.
November 11, 2012
We know all about the benefits of volunteering, for organisations and communities. We can count up the numbers – of volunteers and hours worked – which show simple aggregates of inputs and outputs, and we are finding ways to offer evidence of ‘making a difference’.
We know how a well-run programme can attract new volunteers and donors and gains in street-cred for the organisation. (And how quickly the reverse can happen if quality standards slip).
These days we know volunteer motivation can be less grounded in altruism than in seeking ROI – skill development, work experience and social contact. That’s the individual and personal gain.
There are other spin-offs. At volunteer gatherings where a mix of teams get together I have known excited reunions of people who went to school together or who lived in the same street a long time ago.
When volunteers are really engaged in the organisation you can bet they are developing relationships and forging new friendships. There’s many a tale of clusters of volunteers who meet regularly out of the workplace, organise a reunion, start their own Facebook page. Rugby World Cup volunteers got together again recently, to reminisce and to celebrate their achievements.
But did you know that Volunteering is also Good for Your Heart?
So says a report on research on individual health benefits of volunteering (published 2007).
Volunteer activities can strengthen the social ties that protect individuals from isolation during difficult times, while the experience of helping others leads to a sense of greater self-worth and trust.
Those who engage in volunteer activities are less likely to suffer from ill health later in life and may be introduced into a positive reinforcing cycle of good health and future volunteering.
Even when controlling for other factors such as age, health, and gender, research has found that when individuals volunteer, they are more likely to live longer.
These claims are substantiated in more than 30 studies reviewing the relationship between health and volunteering. It is suggested by one commentator that Civic Engagement and Volunteering is the new hybrid health club for the 21st century – and it’s free to join.
Which is all very encouraging for volunteerism and community organisations and community well-being. But is the correlation of volunteering with good health dependent on practice standards in organisations, and quality management of volunteers? Feeling good about volunteering is certainly related to job satisfaction, a supportive work environment, and being respected and appreciated – all charged out as organisation responsibilities.
So the launch this week of Volunteering New Zealand’s Best Practice Guidelines for Organisations is to be welcomed, by administrators, managers of volunteers, and surely – by volunteers themselves.