February 7, 2015

A Question of ‘Work’

Posted in Language of Volunteering, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering, Volunteer Centres tagged , , , at 10:49 pm by Sue Hine

Work

 

 

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.

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April 6, 2014

Variations on a Theme

Posted in Language, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , , at 3:45 am by Sue Hine

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I am no musician, though I enjoy listening to a variety of music. This week I have come across two new variations on the theme of volunteering. When you think about it there’s quite a catalogue of words playing on ‘volunteering’. Let me introduce you to the old, the new and my own inventions.

Volun-Told – I start with this term, because that’s how I got involved in volunteering, years and years ago when my mother roped me in to help with a fund-raising event. I was about eight years old, and you did what mother said in those days. It was a while before I understood fully what volunteering is about. Today it’s ‘work-for-the-dole’ and community service sentencing that keeps ‘volun-told’ alive.

Volun-Tourist – Another familiar term, referring to those (like Grey Nomads) who take up a spot of volunteering while on holiday, or to spend time helping on a development programme in foreign parts. Nice work, as long as there is benefit to local people.

Micro-volunteer – The new kid off the block, offering multiple opportunities for time-poor people, for virtually anything. But not well understood in my neck of the woods.

Shadow-volunteer – Here’s a newcomer, courtesy of Gisborne Volunteer Centre (March 31). Could be a new way to induct new volunteers, or a ‘try-and-buy’ recruitment option.

Volunt-Hear – From Volunteer Canada, running a hotline for North America’s National Volunteer week, for people to shout out about volunteers and their efforts. Possible spin-off: organisations create in-house opportunities to appreciate volunteers.

Now here are my novel terms:

Vol-Intern – Bring this word into common parlance and we would be rid of arguments on whether an intern is a volunteer or not.

Volun-Corp – Perhaps it doesn’t have the same ring of importance as ‘corporate volunteers’, but at least it puts the volunteering context up front.

Volun-Finders – Raising cheers for all the Volunteer Centres that facilitate volunteer engagement between organisations and the volunteer aspirant.

Volun-Funders – They’re a special breed, going all out to support organisations of their choice. They are the elves to the Fundraising Manager’s shoemaker.

Volun-Tired and Volunt-Tried – Here is a bit of word-play, referring to the long-standing volunteer, or to the volunteer on trial (and/or found wanting). Or maybe the volunteer who contacted the organisation and never got a reply; or the volunteer who has not enjoyed a good experience. Take your pick.

Volun-Steering – I like this one, referring to the manager/leader of volunteers. Not only steering the programme, but negotiating organisation waters that can sometimes be troubled. Could apply equally to volunteer peak bodies.

There is one word omitted from this list: I refuse to include ‘Vollies’. It may be a colloquial term of endearment, but I see it more as word used in a patronising tone, one you might apply to a domestic pet.

That’s enough to go on with; there are plenty more variations to conjure up (suggestions welcomed!). ‘Volunteering’ is a generalist term, covering a multitude of activities and roles. It’s a bit like an orchestra, a collection of very different instruments that collectively can make a beautiful noise. Let’s keep it that way, because in being inclusive we can demonstrate the strength of volunteer actions and the organisations that engage with volunteers. We might yet “become the change we want to see in the world”.

March 2, 2014

Ask a Silly Question…

Posted in Civil Society, Language, Motivation, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:00 am by Sue Hine

questions_thumb[1][1]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.