December 10, 2016
There wasn’t a lot of sun around on Monday last week (December 5 2016) in New Zealand. International Volunteer Day seemed more muted than usual. Yes, there were tea parties and picnics and presentation of volunteer awards around the country, but fewer media statements from previous years and less shouting-out on social media.
A very big thunder rolled across our sky when the Prime Minister announced his intention to resign, taking too much of our airspace. And the coach of our Phoenix football team resigned too, after losing a match which took them to the bottom of the table.
On the other hand there was a great news story about the rescue of 340 campervans and rental vehicles stranded in Kaikoura after their renters had left town – by ship, helicopter or plane in the aftermath of the earthquake. About eighty volunteers from the NZ Motor Caravan Association put in a ten-hour day, travelling by bus to the town, and returning in convoy over a road that still has some hairy spots to negotiate. Pity there wasn’t a mention that the first journey took place on International Volunteer Day.
But there was enough during the day to give me a glow, and a deal of pride in the value of volunteering. Here is my hit parade:
For starters, the United Nations’ theme for the year Global Applause – Give Volunteers a Hand is well captured in a video which also reminds us of the role volunteers play in working towards UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Our Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector commended the volunteer workforce as ‘major contributors to New Zealand topping lists of the world’s best places to live’.
Over the previous weekend more than 800 Flight Centre staff gave 2,200 hours of volunteer time to community projects around Auckland, as part of their ‘Giving Back’ conference. A big tick for corporate volunteering.
Volunteer Centres did their stuff, from a library display to a reminder that New Zealand boasts the highest rate of volunteering in the OECD with kiwis spending an average of 13 minutes a day volunteering. (The global average is just 4 minutes a day.) Volunteer Waikato’s message on Facebook went like this:
“Thank you is not really enough… without you guys there would be a lot less happening in communities throughout New Zealand… and all over the world. You are not just awesome… You are FREAKIN’ AWESOME (with a Unicorn!)”
There were some great one-liners too:
From a volunteer: ‘I think I needed volunteer work as much as volunteering needed me’.
‘While on this day we think of you we recognise that you have been thinking of others all year.’ (Salvation Army)
‘We acknowledge that there is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.’ (St John New Zealand)
In New Zealand our theme for the day was Together we Can, a tag-line which could be incorporated into a photo of volunteers at work. Here is Gisborne Volunteer Centre’s effort, and incorporated in their message is the best line of the day:
Together we can! Together we DO!
In this era of external constraints and funding cuts, a day to understand and appreciate the work of volunteers is a small candle for the community and voluntary sector. Volunteering is never going to disappear, but the future of many organisations looks uncertain. In this last week two long-standing telephone counselling services reported on loss of funding: Lifeline now needs its own lifeline and Youthline will have to reduce services, or even close down. It seems decisions are made with little thought to flow-on consequences.
I am looking for better things in 2017, and I have found a couple of encouragements. In her latest Hot Topic Susan J Ellis reminds me:
When things seem dark and cloudy, history tells us that volunteers can be the bolts of lightning that can turn things around.
For managers of volunteers out there you could start singing the Twelve Pearls of Wisdom, coined for a Thoughtful Thursday post.
And I shall hang on to this quote from John Berger: Remember that hope is not a guarantee for tomorrow but a detonator of energy for action today.
For now, I am stepping off my soap-box to enjoy a festive season and summer holidays. Best wishes to all readers.
February 7, 2015
Technically, all unpaid work is illegal, unless an employer can show it is a training opportunity.
This sentence leapt out at me recently when reading a columnist’s critique of internships. The writer was having a go at the dearth of jobs for new graduates, and the creeping elitism of tertiary education when being an unpaid intern is affordable only to children of the rich.
If unpaid work is illegal where does that put volunteering? Should we be nervous? And would we ever say ‘volunteering is not working’?
Of course not, except the question exposes – yet again – the looseness of English language. Have a go at writing synonyms for ‘work’ and I’ll bet in short order you’ll have a list of ten words, without even including ‘employment’.
Trouble is, ‘work’ gets conflated into ‘having a job’, ‘being employed’, ‘being paid for what you do’, and ‘work status’ is a defining personal concept in many contexts. To admit to being unemployed is not usually something to shout about. And all the while there are plenty of examples of ‘unpaid work’ that we undertake without question: mowing lawns and gardening, raising kids, ‘housework’, caring for aged parents – though we may not call these tasks ‘volunteering’.
Volunteering is work, no question. We have job descriptions and tasks to perform. We put much effort into our endeavours. The organisation will have policies which support our ‘work’ and recognise our rights, similar to employee conditions. We like to be included as ‘staff’ of the organisation, and sometimes we are happy to be referred to as ‘staff’, even if we are not paid. We are not too keen on situations where professional staff regard us as amateurs – that suggests our volunteer work is of lesser value to the organisation.
I am not hearing mumbles about volunteers encroaching on paid staff roles, nor of volunteers being seen as a threat. (Though there are concerns expressed in this nfpSynergy report, p12.) How far can we promote volunteering in the non-profit sector before there is a backlash?
But back to taking on an internship. “Whatever happened to the idea of paying for honest toil?” asks the columnist. Entry level career opportunities seem to have disappeared: it’s either a volunteer internship or flipping burgers and night-shift office cleaning. The struggle to get a foot on the employment ladder makes me wonder if gaining university qualifications are worth the effort. So it is good to see Student Job Search developing proactive partnerships with corporate groups, offering part-time permanent – and paid – positions for graduate students.
There are other anomalies related to ‘work’. New Zealand’s government office for welfare benefits is called Work & Income. A programme to get unemployed people into jobs is called Workfare. Mandatory ‘work for the dole’ is not formalised in New Zealand, and volunteering is a recommended option. We could not call compulsory ‘work experience’ volunteering, yet Volunteer Centres report growing numbers of unemployed people independently seeking volunteer positions for that purpose.
Internships and work experience placements are just a couple of indicators of changes in the employment market and job opportunities. The level of required skill has been raised; unskilled paid work is becoming hard to find. There is no longer a life-long certainty of employment; demand for technological expertise is increasing. Businesses and organisations get restructured at regular intervals. Businesses are bought and sold, and down-sized, and reports of staff lay-offs are reported frequently. So volunteering has become a popular occupation while waiting for the next spell of employment.
Volunteering will never be deemed illegal, yet with the way the world is going we might just see volunteering become an honourable profession.
June 15, 2014
Volunteering New Zealand have done it again! Here’s another National Volunteer Week banner, together with a message to inspire volunteers and their organisations. You can learn more about the whakatauki and its theme here.
The buzz about NVW has started already, with postings and notifications for events to come. And some nice little tasters, like this piece from Volunteer Wellington’s June newsletter:
According to recent OECD statistics people in this country spend an average of 13 minutes per day volunteering, compared with four minutes in other countries. The stats go on to say this results in higher ‘happiness’ ratings plus longer life expectancy.
Nice one – New Zealand leads the way in yet another field of endeavour! It’s worth reading this OECD report for its background introduction, as well as finding out more on the data.
Humans are social creatures. The frequency of our contact with others and the quality of our personal relationships are thus crucial determinants of our well-being. Studies show that time spent with friends is associated with a higher average level of positive feelings and a lower average level of negative feelings than time spent in other ways.
Helping others can also make you happier. People who volunteer tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Time spent volunteering also contributes to a healthy civil society.
A strong social network, or community, can provide emotional support during both good and bad times as well as access to jobs, services and other material opportunities. […] A weak social network can result in limited economic opportunities, a lack of contact with others, and eventually, feelings of isolation.
It’s a long time since I have seen such well-rounded reasoning for building strong and healthy communities, and how volunteering is part of that healthy status.
Volunteering NZ reviews other global and local reports which indicate a downward trend in volunteering and in monetary donations. No explanations for these trends are offered. Nor can I find explicit definitions of volunteering that informed the surveys.
In the week ahead I’m hoping to read some great stories about volunteers and volunteering, about the good experience they enjoyed, and the difference they made for people or the environment, and the fun they had in the process. I’m hoping there will be stories too about good relationships between paid staff and volunteers, and praise for staff who support volunteer effort. And that’s where the managers of volunteers might get a tiny acknowledgement.
And maybe, somewhere, even in a postscript, there will be a nod to the nature of volunteering, and what it represents, and why volunteering is important in our communities and within organisations. That is worth thinking about, in the course of this week.
May 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.