April 22, 2017

Community & Voluntary Sector: What Do We Mean?

Posted in Civil Society, Language of Volunteering, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, Volunteer Diversity tagged , , at 11:34 pm by Sue Hine

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The collective noun of Community & Voluntary Sector is widely used. The words trip of the tongue whenever we want to make a point of how important the sector is, or to argue the significance of volunteer contribution to organisations and communities. Or to point out that this or that organisation is getting a raw deal.

Trouble is, ‘community’ invokes anything from my local neighbourhood, to a particular set of organisations or particular groups of people, and then links with the broader term of Civil Society. It’s a blanket word used so loosely we risk drowning the distinctions – and the voices – that are collectively represented in ‘community’.

You can read all about the facts and values of ‘community’ in Raymond Plant’s Community and Ideology: an Essay in Applied Philosophy (1974). (OK, it’s an oldie but still a goodie.) Plant argues there is no overall definition of community because there is always a value element implicit in using the word: when we talk about what a community is we are also inferring what a community ought to be like, and we may be talking about several different forms of community at the same time. Forty years later we can add ‘networks’ to the meaning of ‘community’, and ‘online communities’ and even global ones.

The Community & Voluntary Sector is also beset with a number of non-titles, like NGOs, NPIs, NFPs, or it is an also-ran as Third (and sometimes Fourth) Sector. Then there is the legal status of organisations: registered charity, incorporated society, or simply a non-entity, a neighbourhood group that organises an informal street clean-up. Or you can categorise organisations by their field of activity, and there are twelve fields according to New Zealand definitions for the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (2009). You could also say organisations contracted to provide services on behalf of government are yet another category, one that tends to dominate conversations about the sector.

I wish we could find another way of expressing a ‘community’ voice that does not lump us all in together, obscuring all the myriad services and groups catering for human diversity and their interests.

Now think about ‘voluntary’, another word used loosely, and then some. Yes, there is a fundamental applied definition of ‘work that is freely given without expectation of reward’, but then count all the different ways of volunteering, the different sectors of interest – and vested interests – and the diversity of volunteers and their motivations.  No wonder we run up against people and organisations that do not ‘get’ volunteering, that do not understand the word’s real meaning.

Volunteering is both a verb and a philosophic concept.  Our beliefs about people and our community relationships will flavour the sort of volunteering we undertake and why we volunteer. Yet too often organisations engaging volunteers have not thought beyond ‘unpaid labour’. There’s a lot more behind ‘working for free’ than donating one’s time.

Consider the different forms of volunteering:

  • Volunteering can be both formal (engaged with an organisation) and informal (helping people outside family obligations).
  • Volunteering can be regular or episodic, short- or long-term.
  • Volunteering can be undertaken as part of Corporate Social Responsibility by employees.
  • Volunteering includes activism for social or political change.
  • Volunteering as obligation, a civic duty.

And the roles undertaken by volunteers:

  • Governance
  • Personal support, befriending
  • Team leadership
  • Event organisation and participation (including fundraising)
  • Administration, from reception and clerical input to accounting
  • Pro bono professional services
  • Research
  • Exploring new approaches to service delivery – innovation

Or the drivers for volunteers:

  • Supporting a cause
  • A desire to connect, to belong in a community, to be useful
  • Gaining work experience (for Interns and unemployed people)

So next time a report is issued on numbers of volunteers, the hours they contribute and the $ value of their contribution to the organisation (or to GDP), start asking a few questions about what the volunteers are working at, and what they achieve. Think about just what sort of difference they make, and exactly why ‘you could not manage without them’.

And then do some hard thinking about how you talk about ‘community and voluntary sector’.  Is its purpose to contribute to GDP, or to social well-being and community cohesion – to be part of a strong Civil Society? Or is this sector largely the ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff of economic and social inequity?

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August 30, 2015

“Get Them While They’re Young”

Posted in Best Practice, Managing Volunteers, Volunteer Diversity, Youth Volunteering tagged , , at 2:45 am by Sue Hine

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Years ago I heard a claim that if you have not been exposed to volunteering before the age of 15 you are unlikely to volunteer as an adult. I have never been able to find a source, or to know if this assertion can be verified, but I sure am aware of the current level of involvement by young people in volunteer projects of all kinds.

It’s like there is a huge surge of interest, from schools, organisations, communities and young people themselves. Young people create their own organisations, like Canteen, or SADD, or the Student Volunteer Army, or their own specific projects. Young people are the faces of Youthline and UN Youth Aotearoa New Zealand.

The conventional age range for youth is 15-24, but volunteering can start at a much younger age. How about the infant that goes with his Mum to a High School Class to talk about child-rearing and parenting? (It’s the Mum who does the talking of course.) Or the whole families who get involved in fundraising or a beach clean-up? Or you can stretch the age range to 30, and find at least one Volunteer Centre consistently registers its highest proportion of volunteers in the 20-29 age band.

Yay! Here are another couple of generations coming along to inspire communities, to advocate for and to lead change, and to fill gaps or attend to particular needs – even as older people fade from the volunteering scene.

Student Community Involvement Programmes have been a feature in New Zealand since the early 1990s, developed and promoted by several Volunteer Centres to introduce young people to volunteering and to learn about different parts of their communities.  Establish relations with schools and youth groups and services, negotiate for projects with local organisations and there can be lots of satisfaction all round.

But not if your experience is like this story:

A class of eleven and twelve year olds are assigned to a coastal regeneration programme, clearing the scrubby stuff and replanting the area. ‘Assigned’ sounds like there is not much choice, like it’s not the students’ idea. If you didn’t want to go you had to stick around at school all day with nothing to do. When the students get to the location there is little instruction and not enough tools for everyone. OK – those hanging around can go and do a beach clean-up.

No wonder there were plenty of gripes and groans from this episode, which was not, I hasten to add, organised through a Volunteer Centre.

So it’s clear the basic principles of a good volunteer programme still apply, regardless of the age of volunteers. Get the planning done, ensure you’ve got adequate resources, and most of all check the project is something young people really want to work on. See this excellent resource, or this one to learn the best practice tricks.

When Student Volunteer Week comes around on September 7 I hope there will be plenty of opportunities to celebrate student volunteer efforts in the community. Let’s acknowledge their initiatives, enthusiasm, commitment and their willingness to pitch in and to ‘make a difference’.

PS   “Get them while they’re young” is a line from the musical Evita, interposed on a paean to   ‘Santa Evita’ sung by a chorus of children.

July 26, 2015

Bring on the Boomers

Posted in Marketing, Volunteer Diversity, Volunteer Generations tagged , , , , at 3:48 am by Sue Hine

Human Women Age Progression

I’ve been hearing about the implications of an ageing population for a long time now. Prognostications include an awful lot of doom and gloom about the cost of pensions and health services, and the shrinking tax-paying work force available to support that expenditure. At the same time there is much laudatory exposure of the engagement of young people in volunteering – Gen Y and the Millenials.

The World Giving Index (2013) shows that “Global youth are driving the rise in volunteering: Since 2011, the biggest increase in participation in volunteering has occurred among 15-24 year olds.  Within three years this age group has gone from being the least likely to the second most likely to volunteer.”

An outspoken blogger argues the obsession with Millenials is a Nonprofit Trend that has to Die. “There are other groups we also need to pay attention to, like the Boomers, who will be retiring and affecting the sector in various ways.”

So I went looking for what’s happening in volunteering, for the data that might give me a reality test of who is doing what.

Statistics New Zealand’s Time Use Survey 2009/2010 showed older people (aged 65+) spent more time on unpaid work than people at other life stages – 4 hours and 31 minutes a day; young people (aged 12–24 years) spent the least, at 1 hour and 46 minutes. OK – that information is a bit old, but gives a pretty clear difference between age groups.

A bit more up to date is 2012 information from Volunteering NZ’s Statistics on Volunteering (New Zealand General Social Survey). People aged 65-74 reported undertaking volunteering work the most (37.7%) followed by people aged 45-54 (34.4%). People in the 25-34 age group reported the lowest rate of volunteering (24.8%). When measured by life-stage, the proportion of people volunteering increases from 28.8% of young adults volunteering to 35% of older people, as indicated in the following graph.

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On the other hand, Department of Internal Affairs (NZ) Quarterly Volunteering & Donating Indicators for the September 2014 quarter show that people between the ages of 30-39 were the largest cohort of volunteers.   People of 60-74 and 75+ years were not far behind.  Long-term trend indicates people aged 40-49 have had the highest percentage of volunteers for 11 of the 19 quarters analysed.  Ages 10-19 have lowest % for 16 of 19 quarters.

US Bureau of Statistics data for 2014 finds that people aged 35-44 were most likely to volunteer (29.8 %). Volunteer rates were lowest among 20- to 24-year-olds (18.7%). For persons 45 years and over, the volunteer rate tapered off as age increased, though the rate for people aged 65 and over was 23.6%. Teenagers (16- to 19-year-olds) had a volunteer rate of 26.1%.

NCVO figures from UK Civil Society Almanac 2014 note that between around a quarter (24%) and a third (33%) of people in each age range report volunteering at least once a month, with those aged 65-74 the most likely to volunteer this frequently.

Enough! From this mish-mash of information I take the following points:

  • Yes, there is a significant rise in the rates of youth volunteering, but they don’t put in the hours that older people (65+) work as volunteers.
  • What is fairly consistent is the highest rate of volunteering in the 30-49 age group, what is (or used to be) called middle adulthood, when involvement in children’s school and sporting activities and local community services can be expected.
  • Yet, in New Zealand at least, it seems older people (65+ years) are the biggest contributors to the community and volunteer sector.

So why are we not hearing more about what older volunteers can do, about attracting older people to volunteering? Specially when we know they are living longer in better health, and how volunteering can be good for both physical and social health. The buzz of volunteering and its intangible (and tangible) rewards are just as important for older people as for younger generations.

A UK report on the future of volunteering in an ageing society indicates the challenges, like they keep on working till at least age 70; they take on extra grandparent duties (or even full-time parenting); and bountiful economic years have given many of them opportunities for travel. Anxiety about being a ‘do-gooder’ or ‘interfering’ is also expressed by people raised in an era of different social norms. And current marketing and promotion of volunteering is not reaching them.

Some excellent resources for engaging with Boomers are available, from best practice to tips and tools. It’s all the stuff we’ve been preaching in New Zealand about management of volunteers for the past five years and a reminder about being inclusive in volunteer programmes. Boomers are too big a population to ignore, and volunteering is their best opportunity to keep involved in all spheres of community life.

As an 82 year old Ambassador promoting Boomer volunteering for Volunteering Waikato has said: No-one should ever be left out!

According to Henry Ford, “Anyone who stops learning is old – anyone who keeps learning stays young”.

And that’s the point made by the president of New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) in 2012:

It has become an obsession to label people as belonging to supposedly homogenous generations – be that Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials or Baby Boomers. Often this labelling becomes a tool for negatively creating false and divisive barriers between generations, or setting one generation against another. Carelessly used, these labels perpetuate ideas of ‘them’ and ‘us’, rather than helping us to build greater social cohesion.

Being a student is one of those shared experiences that continues throughout our lives – we never cease to learn. So everyone is a Generation Student!

That label would suit me just fine, because I could be learning from young people as well as my peers.

So let’s spread the word about the variety of volunteer challenges available to the Boomer generation, about the opportunities to apply their skills and experience, and the opportunities to learn more, and about the richness of belonging and being involved in our communities.