June 27, 2015

The Week That Was

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Impact Measurement, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 10:51 pm by Sue Hine

NVW 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.

May 17, 2015

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , at 5:10 am by Sue Hine

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If the value of volunteering remains largely out of sight, it is likely also to remain out of mind.

 

Now there’s a sentence to make me sit up and take notice.  It is a conclusion reached by Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist for the Bank of England in a speech on the social value of volunteering.  (An edited version is available in e-volunteerism issue for January 2015.)

While Haldane laments the “market failure problem” of volunteering he is also offering a coherent account of the importance of measuring not just labour inputs and an arbitrary economic value: we should include the private value to volunteers (health and social well-being), and its social value.  Even economic dummies like me can see what could be achieved if organisations could afford to hire specialists in social cost-benefit analysis.

I have long wrestled with the issues of measuring volunteer impact, especially in the ‘soft’ social service areas like personal support, the buddy programmes and telephone counselling.  “Not everything that counts can be counted” was Einstein’s take.

But it is not just a lack of accounting that contributes to the low profile of volunteering.  Here is my hit-list of factors that indicate a lack of attention to the nature of volunteering and to recognising and appreciating the value of volunteer contributions.

  • There’s the metaphoric symbolism of locating the volunteer office, and the manager’s desk, in the basement or down the end of a long corridor. That could really put volunteers out of sight and out of mind.
  • The lowly status of a manager of volunteers becomes clear in the job title (‘Volunteer’ manager / coordinator) and a pay scale that can be 20% below other managers in the organisation – though the numbers of volunteers could be ten times the number of paid staff. And too often the manager misses out on strategic planning meetings or management training sessions because “you don’t manage staff”.
  • We all know how volunteers do not come for free, yet too often there is no budget allocation for programme costs. Worse are funder contract terms that expect volunteer engagement to contribute to service delivery, while making no allowance for reimbursing volunteer out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Fundraising and marketing offices take precedence in organisation hierarchy these days, and assume that volunteers will be on tap, on time, all the time. Volunteers are a taken-for-granted resource, and the manager is expected to provide the numbers regardless of short notice.
  • When it comes to appreciation, too often the occasions of National Volunteer Week and International Volunteer Day are a brief flare of publicity. Or there’s a raft of awards at local and national levels, and it’s nice to distribute certificates or to host a social gathering for volunteers. But it is rare to get a sense of understanding just what volunteers do and what they have achieved, and why they are ‘so wonderful’ and ‘needed’. Even the organisation’s annual report can leave acknowledging volunteer contributions to a paragraph on the last page.
  • There is much irony in the handwringing that accompanies a funding cut which is then followed by a reduction in services. There is no place for volunteers to pick up responsibilities; it is as though they have been a mere decorative flourish for the organisation. That’s enough to cause the organisation’s founding volunteers to turn in their graves.

If this list is not enough to go on with there is more outrage to be found in the latest Energize Hot Topic.  Or you could start wondering about a UK government pledge to launch a potential 15 million volunteers from the public and corporate sectors for 3 days volunteering per annum.  Note they would be getting paid leave to do so.

In all these examples there is a utilitarian approach to involving volunteers.  Volunteering has become a commodity, a resource to used for what is increasingly perceived as a political, economic and organisational gain while the social and cultural benefits of volunteering and its critical function for a healthy Civil Society are totally ignored.

Before I get run out of town for such dismal views, let me say I know they do not have universal application.  Let me give credit to those organisations who involve volunteers in positive and valued ways, who ‘understand’ the nature of volunteering.  And then I ask, why can’t others learn from these best practice examples?

Having said all this just offers reinforced support for getting momentum on measuring the true economic, private and social value of volunteering. In New Zealand we can apply the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.  Volunteering Australia launched this week its updated National Standards for Volunteer Involvement. Both documents offer the essentials of good practice and an audit tool to illustrate performance.  The publication of The Economic, Social and Cultural Value of Volunteering to Tasmania is another example of efforts being made to calculate the full extent of volunteering contributions.

These are small steps to measuring the scale of volunteering, and a start to taking giant leaps to make volunteering visible and a ‘market success’.

December 7, 2014

International Volunteer Day 2014

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 3:49 am by Sue Hine

SetWidth600-Over-a-third-of-the-people-that-live-here-give-here.-No-copy[1]It’s done and dusted for another year, that day when we do all the shouting out about volunteers and the work they do everywhere in our communities in all sorts of ways.

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

Let the Tall Poppies Grow

Posted in Celebrations, Community Development, Good news stories, Impact Measurement, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:30 am by Sue Hine

4871271[1]‘Tis the season for proclaiming the virtues of volunteering.

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. 

November 23, 2014

In Praise of Volunteers

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 3:57 am by Sue Hine

VNZ_IV-Day-2014_Facebook-Banner-FINAL-450x166[1]Coming to your place in less than a fortnight: International Volunteer Day.  If you have not already got a ring around December 5, you need to mark this date now!

IVD is a global celebration of volunteerism, honouring people’s participation in making a change at all levels.

This statement is a tag-line on IVD 2014 website.  December 5 is the day to ‘applaud hundreds of millions of people who volunteer to make change happen’.  The Volunteering New Zealand whakatauki for the day (in the banner above) conveys a similar meaning.

Yes, I know it’s hard on the heels of International Volunteer Managers’ Day, but the two go together, don’t they?  It’s a moot point on which is more important: managers of volunteers will not exist without a volunteer programme; and you will never get the best of volunteer contribution and achievement without a switched-on leader and manager of the programme.

Even then we can run into trouble.  How can we measure the outcome, the effectiveness and the impact of volunteer work?  That’s the question that’s troubling the community and voluntary sector at present.  Counting hours of time delivered, perhaps adding in transport and travel costs as donations in kind, tells us simply the amount of free labour an organisation has enjoyed.  When the hours are translated into a rough (read basic hourly rate) $$ amount we can shout loudly about how much money volunteers have saved us.

That is not real appreciation for volunteer effort, not what most volunteers set out to do.   That is not ‘honouring people’s participation in making a change’.

So what are some better ways to acknowledge the real work of volunteers?  When the question is put like this the answers are obvious:

  • What is the real work volunteers have been doing? Describe it.
  • Add in how this work has contributed to organisation mission.
  • How does the work of volunteers enable higher staff performance and overall service provision? (Please don’t say staff could not manage without volunteers.)
  • In thinking about why volunteers are engaged in your organisation, what has been impressive in the way volunteers carry out their roles.
  • Go to consumers and ask them for stories about volunteers – the school kids who are coached by a volunteer; the homebound older person who relies on meals delivered by volunteers; the guests at the soup kitchen; the person whose cat was rescued from a tall tree by the volunteer fireman.

It’s hard to cover everything volunteers undertake.  But the more specific we can be in celebrating volunteering the better we can demonstrate our understanding of volunteering, and how we value it for its non-monetary worth.

When December 5 comes round I do not want to be disappointed by the raft of blanket statements proclaiming volunteers as the organisation’s backbone, or the backbone of society.  Volunteers are not skeletons!

November 2, 2014

To Care and to Clap

Posted in Best Practice, Leading Volunteers, Managing Volunteers, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:10 am by Sue Hine

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We all know there are a few principles (quite a few!) to follow in leading volunteers. So when you are asked for your best tips, what you have learned from experience, what would you be putting at the top of your list?

A couple of people presented me with acronyms recently. Just a couple of single-syllable words that say pretty much everything we need to note in relationships with volunteers.

CARE: Communicate; Appreciate; Respect; Engage

CLAP: Communication; Listening; Acknowledgement; Participation

Pretty simple, huh? We care about volunteers, right?  And we want to clap and cheer them for their work?  So what do we need to know about the words that make up the acronyms?

Communication comes at the top of just about everybody’s list.  Volunteers want to know and understand what is expected of them.  Some volunteers work well being told in person what the specific tasks are, others enjoy working off a list on the whiteboard. Some (oh joy!) like to use their initiative to identify other tasks that might also need to be done – that is when you chalk up real value-added service.  A huge part of communication comes from the manager knowing and understanding the volunteer, in listening and really hearing what is being said, in getting to know the person, warts ‘n’ all, not simply as more grist for the organisation mill.  Communication is the art of connecting with people, more than regular news updates about organisation matters.

The importance of showing appreciation and acknowledging the work of volunteers can never be underestimated.  Saying ‘thank you’ with meaning, in as many ways as possible should never be an add-on chore.  A special email sent out after a particular job is completed, a small note left on the board with a smiley face or a surprise plate of biscuits can all remind a volunteer that ‘yes’ the organisation appreciates their contribution.

Treating everyone with respect, regardless of their position or the hours and the effort they put in goes without saying. When the manager leads by example in demonstrating respect, the standard is set for everyone else.

Engaging with your volunteers shows that you are an integrated team, working towards the same goals. That means you don’t shy away from working alongside them, or checking in on how the weekend went or what the family is up to these days.

Because ultimately, volunteers are in and of the community, and participation in a community-based organisation enhances the connection between them.   Volunteering is a way to realise our existence in a wider world.

So here’s a big thank you to Tara and Laura for encapsulating a big part of the role of managers of volunteer in well-crafted acronyms. Here is an alliterative last word from Tara:

Clap for the victorious vital volunteers, for their valued vigilant vivaciousness!

And when it comes to November 5 this week, we will be letting off a few fireworks in praise of managers of volunteers in our communities, and doing some clapping for the way they care for volunteers.

June 29, 2014

Mixed Messages

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Language, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , at 4:35 am by Sue Hine

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Yes, last week was a blast, a real boost for recognition of volunteers in so many ways.  The sincerity of published tributes cannot be doubted; the excitement of award ceremonies and special functions is spread throughout organisations and communities.  What could be better?

 

Something started niggling as I scrolled my way through electronic messages, and scanned newspaper supplements.  There was something missing.  In all the heaps of praise there was little to tell me what volunteers really do.  Have a look at these comments:

We couldn’t manage without you  (the most frequent tribute)

Thank you to our army of caring volunteers

Thanks to all our wonderful volunteers for their community work

Volunteers are vital to our work

A big “thumbs up” to all our volunteers – you do an awesome job!

Without our team of dedicated volunteers we wouldn’t be able to achieve half of what we’re able to do

Thank you – you really do make a difference.

If I was a non-volunteer these statements would have gone right under my radar and I would have missed discovering the rainbow of volunteering opportunities out there in our communities.

Messages from organisations which cannot manage without volunteer contributions are confusing.  Do they mean the organisation would not exist without volunteers?  And if so I’m sure they do not mean volunteer time and effort is being exploited.   Why not simply say how valuable the volunteer work is to achieving a goal or a mission and some particulars of the work, instead of a commonplace expression?

What is it that volunteers do, that makes them so awesome, so vital, so dedicated?  Please tell me, what is the difference a volunteer makes?   That’s what I start wondering. Yes, the stories of volunteer contributions are there, but you have to go looking or know where to look, and then read the fine print.  Of course the scope and detail of volunteering is not really the material to cram into a snappy social media post – but it can be done.

Instead there is a tendency to focus on numbers, of volunteers, of their total hours worked, as though counting outputs and putting a $$ value on volunteer effort was the most important information we need to know about volunteering.  Yes it is satisfying to claim our place in world surveys, up there with world leaders of volunteering, but still there is little information to tell non-volunteers what all the excitement is about.

So what would I count as real tributes to volunteers?  It would be so simple to complete the sentence Thank you for…. and itemise the task the volunteer (or group of volunteers) undertake.  Like:

Thanks for turning up each week to look after our kids sports team

Thanks for responding each time we get an emergency callout

Thanks for the hours you spend in care-giving telephone calls, home visits, supporting vulnerable people…….

Thanks for being such an enthusiastic fundraiser

Make the message simple, sincere and specific to the organisation.  Adding in service-user feedback comment could highlight volunteer effort, illustrating what really makes a difference.  Other messages could focus on why the organisation engages volunteers, what makes them so vital and valuable.

That’s the kind of communication that connects with a wider public, that demonstrates what is involved in volunteering, and which can encourage more people to put up their hands to volunteer.

 

June 16, 2013

Volunteer Recognition (3) Why?

Posted in Celebrations, Civil Society, Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , at 4:05 am by Sue Hine

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National Volunteer Week is upon us.  The stories about volunteers will unfold through newspaper spreads and press releases, and celebratory functions will be held all over the country.

This feast for volunteering goes international every year, and now it is New Zealand’s turn.  Here, Volunteer Awareness Week has morphed into National Volunteer Week, taking a broader account of the ‘volunteer industry’.   In Wellington corporate volunteering gets due recognition for example, and there are at least a couple of workshops specially to support managers of volunteers.  Watch out for Volunteering New Zealand’s latest innovation: a daily webinar on different topics related to volunteering.

Why do we do this, every year?  What’s the rationale for putting such energy and expense into appreciating volunteers and the business of supporting volunteering, for one week every year?

I could presume we do this because:

  • Volunteers and volunteering are ignored the rest of the year
  • The news media don’t give much attention to good news stories
  • Organisations are focused on service delivery and overlook how much the work of volunteers contribute to those services on a regular basis
  • Any excuse for a party!
  • Opportunity for self-promotion of organisations and Volunteer Centres
  • It’s a great exercise to recruit more volunteers to the ranks

There might be some elements of truth here, but not enough to justify an annual blast of publicity.  We do a great deal of appreciation and recognition throughout the year, in large and small ways, both publicly and privately.  So why do we still need to hold an annual week in praise of volunteering?

I’m having trouble finding rational answers to this question, specially when I hear volunteers saying:

Volunteer work is as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth.  You just do it.  Being part of the community isn’t something that you tack on to life – it’s a really important part of life.

Volunteering gets into your blood.  Like you can’t live without it.

If volunteering is so every-day and ordinary, so much part of our lifeblood, why the need for an annual fanfare?

Maybe the point about recruiting more volunteers is a good enough reason, because total volunteer numbers represent only one third of our population (though the data is probably under-reported).  Because many organisations find they are constantly short on volunteers, and long in demand of services provided by volunteers.  It’s not unreasonable to showcase opportunities to attract interest in volunteering – except recruitment and retention of volunteers is an on-going practice which cannot be left to an annual drive.

Maybe a promotional week is something bigger than the detail of recruitment and recognition.  Maybe it’s the real opportunity to remind people about values of community, service, and the importance of Civil Society.  We might be labelled as non-government or non-profit organisations, and relegated to the less-than-noble title of Third Sector, but by heck if we were not around the political and economic sectors would be missing the third leg of the stool that represents the sort of society we enjoy.

Maybe it is coincidence that CIVICUS has published a new report on the role that civil society plays and the conditions that enable it to do so.  It is certainly timely.

Civil society plays multiple roles. We bring people together. We encourage debate, dialogue and consensus building. We research, analyse, document, publish and promote knowledge and learning. We develop, articulate and seek to advance solutions to problems. We engage with people and organisations in other spheres, such as government and business, to try to advance and implement solutions. We directly deliver services to those who need them.  Sometimes we do all of these things at once. We need to assert that these are all legitimate civil society roles.  [p 33]

This is what we do, all year, every year – right?  And if you, as an organisation or as a volunteer, are struggling to be heard – take heart that you are not alone in the world:

The value that civil society brings always needs to be proved, documented and promoted – and the argument for civil society continually made: “While the assumption of the need for strong government and private sectors is today generally not questioned, the need for a strong civil society is not always so readily assumed.”  [p44]

The report is worth reading in full to appreciate the global trends we are experiencing in New Zealand.

Maybe there is no definitive explanation for holding a National Volunteer Week.  For now and for this week all I need to know is the answer to the question : What is the most important thing in the world?  He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!  That is the start and the end-point of volunteering and community development, and of Civil Society.  It is people!