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.
April 22, 2015
A few weeks back I received notice of a piece of newly-published New Zealand research on digital proficiency in the NFP Sector. It came via my email inbox of course, and though I am no great shakes in computer literacy and technological competency I do know what a necessary asset these skills are for all things volunteering, and for volunteer organisations.
I have lamented for a long time about the often poor and inadequate use of technology. Goodness, it’s nearly five years since I wrote about making websites attractive for volunteers. And still I come across inadequate and out-of-date information, misleading links, and a sort of stone-walling that looks like the organisation has something to hide. I’ve preached about more effective use of social media too, and making space for volunteer on-line participation.
Anyway the analysis of digital proficiency in the research is pretty-much spot on. The report says the NFP Sector is under pressure to do more with less: Government wants to reduce spending; traditional sources of funding are shifting; and supporters want to see the impact of their investment. Organisations that are digitally proficient are better placed to respond in a challenging environment, and there are gains to be made across a range of NFP operations.
It is possible these findings could be extrapolated to a global sphere: “there is no significant difference between IT capability levels between metropolitan and regional-based organisations, or across Australia and New Zealand”. That is not to say Aussies and Kiwis are just the same: there are distinct cultural differences, despite our neighbourliness.
Other results show that less than half of research participants have an IT plan; that there is a positive correlation between IT capability and revenue generation; and that capability is not relevant to organisation size and complexity. And still 11% of organisations do not have or use a website. There’s a heap of challenges to make IT more productive of course, starting with affordable and skilled technical resources. Staff training is high on the list, and making the most of new IT developments is also important.
But wait, there is more. A Facebook link turns up: Tech is Everyone’s Job. Because Tech is also the space for innovation, and lack of staff training and opportunities to test new processes becomes a barrier to effective organisation progress. Right? Just see what Chief Executives are missing when they refuse to use social media.
There is a heap of stuff available urging digital proficiency. There’s also a deal of research and statistics on internet connectivity and use. What about volunteer involvement in their organisation’s on-line activity?
When the idea of volunteers being let loose on social media is raised I hear objections that come close to outrage. I sigh, for this indication of such a lack of trust, that volunteers will abuse the system and risk the organisation’s credibility – which I note is a slur rarely applied to paid staff. With a well-drafted policy to cover and manage perceived risks (and there are examples) volunteers could prove a real asset in promoting good news and even attracting donors’ attention.
Let’s make volunteers and volunteering digital-friendly, and up on the spectrum of technological competence – as well as getting some up-skilling in digital proficiency for organisations.
December 7, 2014
Events took place all over the country. Various social gatherings, award presentations, a march down the main street of a regional town, and if you can call social media an event there was a field day of on-line interaction. The stories about the work of volunteers and by volunteers describing their own journeys just kept on coming. One contributor’s advice was ‘Milk it!’
There were public declarations of thanks and appreciation. Some statements illustrated why it was this day is important.
National organisation, health sector:
We could not deliver what we do if it wasn’t for the tireless efforts of volunteers. They contribute in many different ways, such as assisting with land and water based exercise classes, volunteering at children’s camps, helping at seminars, working in our offices, being on support groups, supporting us on our regional and national committees, advocating for our services, assisting with our annual appeal, and much more.
Government Minister for Sport and Recreation:
These volunteers – coaches, umpires, referees, the people who wash the uniforms, transport the teams, organise sausage sizzles and clean the clubrooms – they are the heart of sport in New Zealand. They also have a key role to play in the success of major sporting events.
Another health sector organisation:
About 2500 people have generously offered up their time in the past year, contributing more than 15,000 hours of unpaid work collectively. That’s a huge amount of time our volunteers have freely given up to shake buckets, help at events, carry out administrative work and speak at public events on behalf of the organisation.
A Regional Council responsible for environmental issues had this to say:
The volunteers have been involved in a range of projects throughout the region and in the past year. They have collectively given more than 26,500 hours of their time to activities such as fencing, planting, plant and animal pest control, building visitor facilities, bird monitoring, litter collection, mangrove management, sign installation and promoting safe boating. Through our combined efforts in the past year 106 ecological sites, 188.8km of waterway margins and 1449 hectares of highly erodible land has been protected. More than 100 tonnes of rubbish has been collected and many, many thousands of native plants have been planted and cared for.
Hurrah! Now we are starting to hear what we are thanking volunteers for, beyond their time and $$ saved for organisations.
And then there is the opportunity to put a stake in political ground. Another parliamentarian wanted to “celebrate volunteers by opposing regulatory burden”:
The current Health and Safety Reform Bill would treat volunteers – even casual ones – as workers, forcing organisations to take liability for the safety of people who have chosen to pitch in for events like tree plantings and disaster clean-ups. The practical effect of this regulation is obvious: it will be harder for communities to mobilise volunteer action. Ratepayers in particular will be hit hard, as local councils currently utilise volunteer labour for many vital services and initiatives.
We also got a reminder from Volunteering New Zealand and Volunteer Service Abroad (NZ) that volunteering is not just about domestic issues, and how the need to promote volunteering never ceases:
Every year, more than one million New Zealanders volunteer here and overseas, in their own communities and in countries facing hardship and poverty. Their goal is to work with those who wish to improve their lives, and the lives of others, in some way. On International Volunteer Day, the international volunteering community renews its call for volunteering to be seen as key to international and national development.
At the end of the day I was able to kick back with colleagues from Volunteering New Zealand. We toasted our achievements for the day and looked forward to imminent holiday time.
Quote of the day comes from the Chair of Volunteer Wellington’s Board of Trustees:
It’s hard to measure the impact of volunteering, but it’s easy to feel the difference we make.
The image above is by Ken Samonte, for Positively Wellington Tourism. See more here, especially re volunteering.
I’m signing off now for the year. I’ll keep beating my drum in 2015, though probably less often.
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.
September 8, 2014
It’s in our DNA. It’s in our thinking and every-day language. A Fair Go has been the Kiwi ethos since the early days of European colonisation. New settlers came to escape from social injustice and gross inequity in their home states. Then the limitations of climate and soil and natural resources fed the development of cultural norms, social practices and political institutions that encouraged and enabled fairness, sharing and redistribution. We were living in ‘God’s own country’.
We got votes for women in 1893, a pension for elderly people in 1898, and in 1938 the landmark Social Security Act introduced our distributive welfare system. Fairness has been a foundation for our health and education policies and public services, and of course in the evolution of community organisations. But the growth of inequality in recent decades has shaken up our faith in getting a fair go.
Politicians (especially in this election-fevered period) like to talk of ‘ordinary New Zealanders’ in defence of their policies and to rebut critics. Trouble is, we are no longer an ‘ordinary’ bunch of people: the conformist years of 1950s are long gone. There is nothing ordinary about income inequality and child poverty. Ethnic diversity has become extraordinary, along with different cultures and a plurality of values. Fair Go (a consumer advocacy programme) might be the longest running TV show in New Zealand, consistently achieving high ratings – because it is about righting shoddy practice and unfair dealings – but could the programme’s success indicate a decline in the practice of fairness over recent decades?
When it comes to the community and voluntary sector it does not take much search of the literature to find references to ‘marginalisation’, ‘political interference’, ‘loss of independence’ and ‘contracting constraints’. There is nothing fair going on here.
I wonder how volunteer programmes fare in this current environment. What does it take to ensure and to maintain a fair go for volunteers? There’s a bunch of indicators that could give me some answers.
Recruitment patterns: Elements of discrimination or exclusion, and recruiting volunteers to fit the organisation mould – or diversity welcomed and potential perceived.
Level of Engagement: Volunteers assigned low-skill tasks, minimal support and encouragement – or real work contributing to organisation mission; opportunities for job enrichment; ongoing support and training; consulted on organisation change; ideas and suggestions welcomed, and actioned; good relations with paid staff.
Retention rates: Regular turnover of volunteers – or sustained and involved engagement; resignations due to external factors.
These measures are no-brainers: they indicate the best and worst of volunteer engagement. Best is the organisation that understands volunteering, appreciates the work of volunteers and the added value they bring to the organisation. It’s an organisation that never has to hang out signs like ‘Desperately Needing Volunteers’.
And it doesn’t take much to join the dots with the core business of a manager of volunteers. That’s the person that knows all about a Fair Go, and how to make it happen for volunteers. So let’s make sure we give the manager of volunteers a fair go too. Find out how in the Volunteering New Zealand document, Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer Involving Organisations.
August 24, 2014
The lugubrious title for this post captures the sombre tone of a recent news headline: Academic Warns of Australia’s Disappearing NFP Sector. And the full account of Professor Paul Smyth’s seminar presentation is worth reading to follow the arguments. Here are some variations on his theme:
A new order of things where the private sector practises social responsibility and states seek to be more entrepreneurial, while community organisations become more and more business-like.
Not only is your mission as a community sector organisation irrelevant but your practice risks ending up indistinguishable from private sector providers.
The voluntary sector is seen as having no distinctive value add to bring to the welfare table but becomes just another rival ‘business’ in a privatised service market.
These views are not exclusive to Australia – indeed they represent a trend that can be found elsewhere, including New Zealand. I’ve been collecting indications over the past couple of years:
The meaning of ‘Democratic deficit’ allows governing bodies the power to do what they like. It’s an undemocratic reality when all the power is in the hands of government, when the voice of the sector is not valued, nor respected. (Grey & Sedgwick research, 2013)
Volunteer sector service providers are under public management. The contracting environment has introduced competition within the sector, undermined efforts at collaboration, and reduced the flexibility and responsiveness that is a hallmark of community organisations.
There’s a decline in volunteer numbers, and their role has become instrumental rather than a means towards mission achievement. There is even some anxiety about using the word ‘volunteer’.
A logical outcome of marketisation of non-profit organisations is a weakening of Civil Society. We are seeing this already in the fall of public participation, particularly in ‘voter apathy’ at election time. When major NGOs become ‘privatised’ they take on the formality and philosophies of the corporate sector. When non-profit and community organisations are required to dance to government dictates they are effectively disempowered, losing control of their purpose and practice. When Civil Society is weakened it can no longer offer a counterbalance to the power and control of the market and government: citizens and their communities are the poorer for that.
“It’s time for outrage!” is a cry that has not yet been taken publicly. But we do need to start the “difficult conversations about the future”. It can be argued that the present paradigm for delivering social services is neither sustainable, nor desirable: “there is an emerging consensus that the welfare sector … is being stripped of its ethos of service to the community and of the ethic of voluntarism”. Professionalisation of care services delivery diminishes the power of voluntary contribution from wider community. We lose the diversity of networks and connections and opportunities that the broader community can bring to social needs.
None of these views are new. You can read about their evolution in New Zealand in this history of the non-profit sector. This publication includes a reminder that our present is a product of past conditions, and:
….non-profits have always had life cycles, and that there was a historical pattern of growth and decline. This has been an essential element in the vibrancy and adaptability of the sector.
It is time now to get beyond outrage. We need to revive that vibrancy, the commitment and concern that created the sector in the first place. The end is not nigh, but we do need to reaffirm the strength and status of volunteering and community organisations.
Cartoon sourced at http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/nfp-kneebone 24/01/13
August 17, 2014
Diversity is the theme of the moment, popping up in workshops around the country, promoted on websites, and a national forum is to be held next week, with a focus on migrant and refugee employment.
New Zealand is now recognised as one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Without overlooking our bicultural heritage we need to acknowledge the 213 ethnicities that are living here in Aotearoa. You could say we have become a melting pot for the 21st century. So what does this mean for the voluntary and community sector?
Volunteering is a well-travelled route for new migrants, for offering work experience, for improving language skills, for getting to know local communities. There are countless success stories, and many continue their volunteer involvement long after they find paid work.
But diversity is wider than including ethnic groups. There’s a huge range of skills, interests, ages and abilities in our population to contribute to volunteering in our communities. And when this diversity is set alongside the diversity of volunteer organisations and their members and users we could be entering a golden age of volunteering.
So let’s look at developing further all those different volunteer streams.
Corporate volunteering is increasing in bounds, especially when it is organised through the local Volunteer Centre. (Find out more here – Employees in the Community) Corporate groups can tackle large-scale projects or special ventures for organisations, or offer pro bono services. Here is a way to introduce people to the excitement, the creative stimulation, the camaraderie and companionship that volunteering can offer, which can then spin-off to a continuing involvement for individuals.
Engaging people with disabilities is not a new source of volunteers, not if you have an open mind and a focus on ability. Disabled people might need accessible facilities or extra support (see this useful model) – but to exclude them from volunteering opportunities is to deny their participation as members of our communities. There are plenty of examples where disabled or chronically-ill people are helping their fellows, or working in another field altogether. Well-planned programmes bring benefits to disabled people and to the organisation, and to our communities.
Gen Y and Millenials get a lot of public attention these days. There is quite an industry devoted to encouraging young people into volunteering. Yet I note plenty of examples where these generations are doing boots-and-all stuff in their communities, creating and sustaining initiatives and developing social enterprises, and their own strategies to counter limited opportunities in mainstream employment. The story of the Student Volunteer Army is a good example. At the same time traditional volunteer services are proving they are open to engaging with young people.
Internship programmes offer another point of entry to volunteering for young people. Despite concerns and debates the best programmes will be ensuring benefits to both organisation and the intern. And if they have not discovered volunteering previously the interns I meet are also discovering community and the world beyond paid employment.
The Boomer generation is another significant population group, yet we hear little about them as volunteers. Are they being ignored? As the community movers and shakers of times past is their continuing involvement being taken for granted? Like all other volunteers older people are looking beyond stuffing envelopes for challenges relevant to their knowledge and skills. There is still a place for cross-generational mix, and without full representation in the volunteer pool then the claim to diversity is diminished.
It takes all sorts to achieve the best in volunteering. I’ve said all this before, but some things are worth repeating.
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.