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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September 28, 2014

Volunteer Effort in Conference

Posted in Civil Society, Community Development, Conference communication, Politics of volunteering, Trends in Volunteering tagged , , , , at 4:44 am by Sue Hine

 

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IAVE is the organisation that exists to promote, strengthen and celebrate the development of volunteering worldwide. At the Gold Coast in Australia in mid-September the 23rd IAVE conference was indeed a worldwide gathering.

Plenary and breakout sessions offered a menu that was both mouth-watering and bordering on indigestible. I could choose between the trials and triumphs of local organisations or listen to the political arguments around structural issues for the sector.

The hot topics for our age were well canvassed. Corporate volunteering, partnerships and collaboration, working with government, marketing and engaging with technology were the popular subjects in the programme outline.

Practice issues did not feature so prominently. Presentations considered engaging with youth and aged populations, with diversity – or rather inclusion, with building communities, and with emergency and event volunteering.  Even less attention was offered to management of volunteers and the importance of leadership, and I heard no voice raised by volunteers themselves.

The message that came through loudest was the tension between government and business involvement in the community and voluntary sector, and sector organisations struggling to be heard and respected as an equal partner.

It seems economic analysis is more important than social policy. *

Comments like this one reflect prevailing political ideology, that economic development is the best route to social development and community wellbeing. Opposition was forthright:

Government does not own volunteers: nobody does!

Government involvement with NGOs is a contradiction in terms!

Western democracy is afraid to cede power to community.  

There were plenty of references to social capital, to capacity building and development, yet never accompanied by objectives or expected outcomes. I should not be surprised.   It seems like volunteering /volunteerism is being colonised by public and private sectors. Efforts to build Civil Society are being subjected to business and government interests.  On the other hand:

What is the nature of engagement we want with government? 

Government should offer enabling frameworks, should stimulate but not step in further.

Yet New South Wales government steps up and funds a Time-Banking programme. By contrast, the UK minister (now former) for civil society told UK charities “to stick to your knitting and keep out of politics”.

However, positive collaboration can happen. South Australia offers an impressive example where state and local government, the business sector and the Volunteering peak body, Volunteering SA&NT have developed a state-wide volunteering strategy designed to bring improvements to volunteer experience.  Read about it here.

While the question of relationships between sectors looks like being the debate of the decade (and beyond), another stream raised important voices.

Professionalised human service delivery has pushed volunteering aside – volunteers are not being involved in decision-making.

What is the real purpose of volunteering?

We need to sell volunteering through telling volunteer stories.

The keynote address at the beginning of the conference, given by the Hon. Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia, was an inspiring challenge.  It’s easy to admire volunteering, he said, in schools, in Rotary, in surf life-saving, but what are the things we are not talking about today?  Where are the unpopular causes?  What’s the next big thing?  We all have a duty to defend human dignity.  Responses were pretty immediate:

Get volunteering included in the constitution! (Australia)

Volunteering is the badge of freedom hard won

So it was fitting that a final forum for the conference was about Volunteers and Advocacy – Challenging the Status Quo.  We heard about Every Australian Counts, a campaign for the rights of disabled people, about Australia’s First Peoples and their struggle for inclusion, and about improving conditions for AIDS caregivers in Africa.

Advocacy is about connecting with others – you can’t do it on your own.

Advocates are ‘creative extremists’.

That was a good note to end the conference. There is a lot more to be said, but I have brought home a headful of reflections, and an Einstein quote raised by a speaker:

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

I just have to figure out how to change the way I think!

………………..

*  All statements in italics are direct quotes.

See the Michael Kirby address here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sarXb_aTzuk