February 26, 2017

Thinking about Altruism

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 2:08 am by Sue Hine

new-picture

Over the holiday period I gobbled up a number of books, fiction and non-fiction. Well – what else do you do when it’s supposed to be summer and the wind and rain keep pouring into my city? And there was a fair bit of Googling as well, checking out New Year prognostications arising for the non-profit sector.  And trying to comprehend developments in “the new world order”, the term applied here to the reign of the new US President.

I sense a swell of concerns in the voluntary and community sector that have been simmering for some time: competition for funding; changes in government commitment to service provision, forcing organisations to close their doors; a fall of volunteer numbers and increases in paid staff; and in some quarters, a lack of public confidence in non-profit organisations. As always, there’s a refrain, singing for better recognition of volunteers, and for management of volunteers.

There are some other strands emerging too. They’ve also been around for a while, but I’m reluctantly taking some notice of the rise of ‘social enterprise’, a revival of ‘social investment’ (and what impact that might have on existing services), and a movement called ‘Effective Altruism’ promoting ‘how to help you help others, do work that matters, and make smarter choices about giving back’.

Its champion is William MacAskill, and in his book Doing Good Better he offers a disarming self-help manual on how to decide best career choices when you want ‘to make a difference’, what cause to focus on, which charities offer the best outcomes. It’s hard to argue against his reasoning, except that it’s a long way from my basis for making choices when offering to volunteer or to respond to calls for $ donations.  His utilitarian approach has been well-critiqued, not least for ignoring the sticking plaster some charities put on injustices perpetrated by capitalism.

In simple terms, MacAskill advises that ‘the market will make it all work’.  Donors are investors seeking the best return for their money (ROI).  They might also get their name in lights as a worthy philanthropist.  What bothers me is the absence of any attempt by MacAskill to define ‘altruism’ beyond the basic ‘giving’. There is scant attention to other values and moral codes that can influence decisions, and he offers several examples of choices that have made little or no ‘difference’. The only mention of volunteering implies that giving money is a far better option than giving time:

As a volunteer, you’re often not trained in the area which you are helping, which means the benefit you provided might be limited. At the same time you’re often using up valuable management capacity. For that reason, volunteering can in fact be harmful to the charity you’re volunteering for. Anecdotally, we have heard from some non-profits that the main reason they use volunteers is because those volunteer subsequently donate back to the charity.

Hands up those who reckon volunteers are more trouble than they are worth!

There is more. Another book picked up by chance is by Nic Frances, a leading supporter of social enterprise. He outlines in The End of Charity how the divide between money-making business and doing-good charities doesn’t really make the world any better. This view is echoed by Don Pallotta who highlights business practice discrimination against non-profit organisations. Frances argues we need to stretch financial values to include social and environmental values, and for business to incorporate these elements into their operations – to take Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) seriously. Well, yes, but is there any guarantee the outcome will not be like a corporate takeover of the non-profit sector? The ‘end of charity’, indeed.

Let’s go back to that word ‘altruism’, a loaded value-word, and values are notoriously debatable though highly significant in shaping thinking and behaviour. In simple terms ‘altruism’ represents a genuine concern for the well-being of others, and according to a cluster of researchers, altruism is also an integral part of human nature. Altruism can also bring benefits to ourselves – as volunteers well know and evidenced in research.

OK, science is divided between arguments on Darwinian competitiveness and the kind of mutualism (collaboration and coordination) that contributed to human evolution, but genuine altruism is right up front in Volunteering New Zealand’s definition of volunteering:

Work done of one’s own free will, unpaid, for the common good.

So I will not be jumping ship and buying into non-profit organisations becoming models of utilitarian business institutions. I will be thinking long and hard about what would be lost, like the passion for a cause, the spirit of community, and the rewards of volunteering. I shall be asking where the ‘common good’ has gone, and whether I still have free will.

Because we have been slow to appreciate the impact of change over the past thirty years. Contracts with government, rules and procedures for funding applications, formalised reporting and accounting for the spending of funds have upped the game of running a community organisation – and lifted standards of transparency and accountability. The shift from grass roots advocacy and action to formalised volunteering has introduced better practice in ‘using’ volunteers, aided through the professional development of volunteer management. In doing so, we have allowed a great divide to open between formal and informal volunteering.

According to altruists we have become corrupted by the modern money system, “an unnatural transactional mentality which establishes competitive relationships, overemphasises individualism, erodes society and fuels consumerism”. At the same time we protest loudly at the lack of recognition, of the true (non-monetary) value of volunteering and the work of community organisations.

While MacAskill and his colleagues preach ‘effective altruism’ I shall continue to beat the drum for the gift economy and relationships based on respect, empathy and cooperation. Without a strong volunteer presence, without thousands of organisations and people serving their communities through sport, arts and leisure pursuits, health and welfare support, emergency response, environment advocacy and all the stuff that goes on under the radar, the world would be a poor place to live.

That’s why we keep on volunteering, and doing the right thing in managing volunteers. Right? What actions would demonstrate our true worth?

October 27, 2016

The Holes in Volunteering

Posted in Politics of volunteering, Professionalism, Recognition of Volunteering, Sustainability, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 8:42 pm by Sue Hine

black-hole

ComVoices, a network of national organisations in the tangata whenua, community and voluntary sector has just released a new State of the Sector Survey.  In a press release Scott Miller, current Chair of ComVoices (and Chief Executive of Volunteering New Zealand), writes about the growing holes in the safety net provided by the community sector.

Yes, we’ve seen this coming for a long time now: the increased demand for services, greater complexity of community needs, and government exacting greater compliance regulations every year.  “No-one appears to be listening”, says Scott.

So the ‘inequality’ debate is not only about wealth distribution – it’s also about unequal weighting placed on the community sector to deliver services to stressed communities: a load of expectations without realistic resources to meet them.

And just when you might argue that volunteers will fill the gaps in organisation capacity we find an international decline in volunteer numbers.

Trouble is, we’ve talked up the ‘voluntary sector’ for years, assuming volunteers will pick up the pieces and do what communities do, looking out for each other. Volunteers got organisations going, like Plunket and IHC and Parents Centre and Play Centre, and Surf Life-Saving, and all the local sports teams.  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were volunteers responsible for gaining New Zealand women the vote in 1893; volunteers raised funds to build school swimming schools in the 1940s and 50s; volunteers spoke out loudly on domestic violence and rape, till the government offered funding, in return for a more muted voice.

These days, volunteers are much less likely to be life-time devotees to a cause.  It’s not just because we are time-poor: we are preferring the short-term stint that offers a real job to do. Organisations face competition in attracting volunteers, and there is a great deal more these days to managing a volunteer programme than getting the numbers on board. At the same time the spread of volunteer opportunities has widened: from beach clean-ups to work experience, from ‘getting to know the community’ for new settlers to volunteering for English-speaking practice, from supporting a community garden to making breakfasts or lunches for the local school.

Mainstream organisations have become non-profit businesses, focused on employing professional staff and building relations with key funders as well as government. There is a sense that volunteering has become professionalised as well, given the structure and maintenance needed to ensure a well-functioning volunteer programme.  (Though note how the manager of the programme is not worth nearly as much (salary-wise) as the Funding and Marketing manager.) Of course the “we could not manage without you” platitude is real, but the roles offered to volunteers are too often for amateurs, pitted against the professionals. I wonder how many of those volunteers are otherwise engaged in professional careers.

Volunteering is not going to disappear any time soon.  But the symptoms outlined in the ComVoices report are as damaging to volunteering as they are to the organisations. A collapse in service delivery does not bear thinking about. And we cannot rely on volunteers (nor expect them) to pick up the pieces.  We have moved a long way from the roots of the organisations that are now in thrall to government contracts and philanthropic grants.

Early next week Volunteering New Zealand’s conference will focus on the links between vision and action.  Promoting, supporting and advocating for volunteering is the mission, ensuring volunteers are engaged effectively, that volunteering is visible, with sound leadership.

Volunteering lives. Let’s keep it that way!

October 3, 2016

Think Global, Act Local

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Community Development, Organisation Development, Politics of volunteering, Sustainability, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , at 9:55 pm by Sue Hine

think-global-act-localBack in the early 2000s I was doing post-grad study on Development, the word applied to ‘Low-Income Countries’ and the aid programmes that might raise their economies.  Up in bright lights were the Millenium Development Goals, the United Nations’ aspirations for achievement by the year 2015.  A year ago UN replaced the MDGs with a new sustainable development agenda. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), embracing a global approach to social, economic and environmental development.  These goals are for everyone, not just a catch-up for developing countries.

In New Zealand ‘sustainability’ is never far from our news headlines, as in fishing quotas and predator-free zones, in recycling and renewable energy.  There is plenty of opportunity to be engaged, locally and globally, in supporting SDGs.  There is a part to play for governments, the private sector, and civil society (including our community and voluntary sector).

Alongside the SDGs comes the UN State of the World Volunteering Report, also published in 2015. Volunteering New Zealand has compiled a review of the SWVR2015 and links findings with SDGs.  In their response, published in June this year, they note that

SWVR 2015 focuses on ‘transforming governance’, because good governance is critical for sustainable development.

In case you are wondering, ‘governance’ is broader than the responsibilities of an organisation’s Board:

[Governance is] the exercise of economic, political and administrative authority to manage a country’s affairs at all levels. It comprises the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences.                Source: UNDP 1997.

According to SWVR2015 the three pillars of governance where volunteerism can have the greatest impact are voice and participation, accountability and responsiveness. Volunteers at the local level build peoples’ capacity; governments can create greater space for volunteerism to enhance social inclusion; and global volunteer networks promote voice, participation, accountability and responsiveness. This model of governance will lead to success for the SDGs.

While SWVR2015 applies the pillars of governance at a national and international level I think there is a model here that could be applied to volunteers and organisations at a local level. Consider:

  • What level of voice and participation do volunteers enjoy in your organisation? Are they invited to staff meetings, training and social events? Are in-house newsletters circulated to volunteers? Do volunteers have a say in planning and development of the organisation? Are their new ideas and initiatives welcomed? These questions could be the litmus test for volunteer inclusiveness and diversity in the organisation.
  • Allowing a volunteer voice and participation requires responsiveness on your organisation’s part. It requires listening and being receptive to views, and a willingness to modify decision-making to enable volunteer initiatives. Are the appropriate mechanisms and processes in place to be responsive to good ideas?
  • Then there is accountability, the obligation to take responsibility for decisions and actions. How does your organisation respond when ‘called to account’? There are plenty of training opportunities for Board members to cope with increasing pressures for organisation accountability and performance. In terms of accountability to volunteers, does the board of your organisation include a portfolio responsibility for the interests of volunteers?

Thinking Big about volunteers and volunteering can make a huge difference at a local level.  Just think what this kind of wave could create on the global stage.

SWVR2015 calls for much greater engagement with volunteers and volunteerism in all its forms – formal (including international volunteering) and informal – and at all levels from the local to the global. This engagement requires raising our understanding of the needs and rights of volunteers, and finding ways to resource, support and actively engage with volunteer work to improve governance. There is the challenge, so how shall we respond?

November 10, 2015

Another Way of Seeing

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Civil Society, Politics of volunteering, volunteer experience tagged , , at 7:52 pm by Sue Hine

290411 News Photo NASA Runoff from heavy rains, combined with wave action along the coast, increased the turbidity of New Zealand’s waters when this image was acquired on April 29, 2011. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite captured this view of sediment flowing in the Pacific Ocean. The volume of sediment in the water hints at rough seas. Distinctive plumes arise from pulsing rivers, while the halo of turquoise around both islands is likely sediment swept up to the ocean surface by powerful waves. The plumes fan out and fade from tan to green and blue with water depth and distance from the shore. Cook Strait, the narrow strip of water separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand, has a reputation for being among the world’s roughest stretches of water. The islands lie within the “Roaring Forties,” a belt of winds that circles the globe around 40 degrees south. The westerlies hit the islands side on and run into the mountain ranges. Cook Strait is the only opening for the winds, so the channel becomes something of a wind tunnel. Strong winds produce high waves, and they erode the shore as shown in the image. However, sediment may not be causing all of the color. The waters around New Zealand are rich in nutrients, so it is likely that phytoplankton are contributing to some of the fanciful swirls in the image. Mixing currents bring nutrients to the ocean’s surface, providing a prime environment for plankton blooms. Made up of millions of tiny plant-like organisms, the blooms routinely color the ocean with broad strokes of green and blue. Phytoplankton are important to New Zealand because the organisms are the base of the ocean food chain. In places where phytoplankton flourish, fish also gather. Commercial fishing is New Zealand’s fourth largest industry. References Ministry for the Environment. (2007, September 17). Importance of oceans to New Zealand. New Zealand Government. Accessed May 13, 2011. New Zealand History Online. (2009, January 12). Rough crossings—Cook Strait ferries. New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Accessed May 13, 2011. NASA image courtesy Norman Kuring, Ocean Color Team. Caption by Holli Riebeek. Instrument: Aqua - MODIS

A couple of months ago I spent a few days in Iran, a country of different culture and politics from my own.  I was wowed by the friendliness and hospitality of the locals, always interested in where I had come from, wanting to know what I enjoyed about Iran and where I was heading to.  Visitors to New Zealand get similar questions.

Which has given me pause to think about the similarities and differences in our community and voluntary sectors, and to look at New Zealand through the other end of the telescope.

Iran has been out of international favour for three decades now.  Its nuclear programme brought sanctions from USA in 1979, and later from UN and EU.  The country has been ‘demonised by the West’ says one commentator, with devastating effect on Iran’s internal economy.  This troubled history does not tell us much about their civil society.  We have heard little of the pressure of women’s groups, a major voice of dissent and a thorn in the Islamic regime’s side.  Widespread protests in 2009 against presidential election results brought a government response in which hundreds were killed and thousands imprisoned.  These events did not register on my radar at the time.

The number of non-profit organisations in Iran and the informal support at community level is comparable to what we would expect in Western civil societies, though rights and restrictions on charities and non-government organisations have fluctuated over time according to presidential decree.  The current president, Hassan Rouhani, declared on election that he would prepare a “civil rights charter” and restore the economy, yet the struggle for a more robust civil society is stifled by hardliners in the Iranian parliament. The population becomes more submissive and cautious, and fearful about the chaos across its borders and government repression of protest.

The high rates of drug addiction and prostitution, and the highest rate in the world for internet pornography are not statistics Iranians want to proclaim.  On the other hand the recent détente of sorts with the US is a significant achievement.  Iranians I met were excited about the potential to free up trade and improve the economy.

So where are the connections with New Zealand in this scenario?  On one hand we enjoy a history of social and community achievements, votes for women and introduction of old age pensions in the late 19th century, and for Welfare State provisions from 1935.  The community and voluntary sector has been active right from colonial times, and just keeps on growing and adapting to changing conditions.

On the other hand, New Zealand has had its moments of insurrection and protest.  Think Land Wars of the 1860s, Te Kooti’s rampage in 1868, the invasion of Parihaka in 1881, and the police raid on Rua Kenana’s settlement at Maungapohatu in 1916.  Yes, there has been armed opposition from government (Massey’s Cossacks in 1913), shootings and injuries (Waihi Miners’ Strike), and plenty of arrests.  Political and civil rights were suspended in 1951, in the course of crushing the strike by the Waterside Workers Union.  In modern times we have had the Land March (1975), and the long occupation of Bastion Point (1977).  We have protested loudly against nuclear warships, the Vietnam War, changes in employment law and latterly the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty and Inequality.  The Tour (1981) still represents a benchmark for real civil unrest.   Serious enough for our small islands, though nothing like the wholesale deaths and arrests and ongoing repression which occurs in Iran.

But serious enough for me to consider what is presently at risk for Civil Society in New Zealand.

Protest by community and voluntary sector organisations has taken a muted tone in recent times.  When organisations rely on government funding contracts which include gagging clauses there’s a full stop, period.  When contract requirements are so onerous (though recent changes negotiated with the sector are welcome) there is no time or energy for protest.  There is little consideration for the impact on communities when organisations are forced to close because government priorities have changed.

We are weary from the effort of presenting submissions on relevant legislation or regulation and then finding the interests of the community are ignored.  Words like ‘democratic deficit’ or ‘disconnect’ get spoken and written about, and low voter turnout at both government and local body elections means democratic apathy is all around.

The thing is, I have always thought civil society as ‘the third leg of the stool’, up there with the public and private sectors in creating the sort of society and communities we want to enjoy.  Civil Society – all those organisations that deliver services, run the sporting sector, create healthy and resilient communities, foster neighbourhood groups – represents a different perspective from the economic and the political.  Which is not to assume civil society should be apolitical – Courts are deciding that yes, charities do have an advocacy role to play, as this quote argues:

An ‘effective’ (often known as ‘vibrant’) civil society is fundamental to any society’s capability to provide for its members’ needs and meet their aspirations, guide and hold its political and economic leaders and power-holders to account, and to embody the complex web of interactions between and among people and peoples, and between people and the state, which is such an essential feature of resilience in the face of political, environmental, social or economic shocks.

In today’s reality civil society has been drawn into the public and private sector practices.  Community and voluntary organisations are marketised, and volunteers used to deliver services, for government purposes.  Corporate sponsorship, even with the best intentions and some welcome funding, can turn into a re-branding exercise for an organisation.  A flow-on effect for civil society organisations is falling confidence in their accountability, level of trust and ethical practice (Dominion Post, November 4), and consequently less donor support.

None of these views are new, and for a really good global summary see State of Civil Society 2015, which includes the following statement:

The power of civil society is recognised through a back-handed compliment, when elites try to suppress civil society’s essential role of speaking truth to power. In many contexts, civil society is attacked when it seeks to uphold human rights, advocate for policy change or exercise accountability over political and economic elites.

Or take in the introduction to the State of the World Volunteering Report 2015, where our former Prime Minister Helen Clark says:

The report suggests that the ability of volunteers to support development progress depends on the willingness of national governments to ensure that the space and supportive environments which encourage their participation and initiatives are available. (Emphasis added)

So there we have it.  We may not suffer the extremes of repression experienced by civil society groups in Iran, but in New Zealand we too are burdened by elements of control.

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’.

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

March 30, 2014

All About Community

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Celebrations, Civil Society, Language, Politics of volunteering tagged , , , , at 3:02 am by Sue Hine

High%20res%20logo%20no%20date[1] This weekend ‘Neighbours Day’ was celebrated throughout New Zealand Aotearoa. Two days of street parties, suburban fairs and celebrations – and they will continue throughout the coming week. I went to a party hosted on my suburb’s community marae, Nga Hau e Wha o Papararangi. City Council dignitaries and the local MP attended and addressed participants. There was entertainment and games, a hangi, and display stalls from local organisations.

Why would we need a week-long event to get to know our neighbours? Well, it matters, says the blurb on the Neighbours’ Day website, because:

Through fostering better connected neighbourhoods and more everyday ‘neighbourliness’, Kiwi communities can be stronger and more resilient and the wellbeing of individuals, family/whanau and community will be significantly enhanced.

Yes – I understand the importance of resilience and wellbeing: security for our citizenry is a matter of public policy. Yes – I know we are many generations distant from the days of closed communities and in-grained neighbourliness. But I wish we could pay more attention to what we mean by ‘community’.

That word ‘community’ carries a whole lot of baggage, has thousands of applications and is freely used and abused.

As a generalised reference ‘the community’ is so vague and broad the term becomes meaningless. ‘The Community and Voluntary Sector’ is likewise a broad-brush term, but at least we can understand it in relation to the Public and Private Sectors – though we too often forget that people engaged in the latter are also members of ‘the community’.

Community organisations can talk up ‘Community Engagement’, without recognising they are part of that community themselves. Governments also like to engage with communities to consult on new policies, though the outcome of consultation is not always to the community’s liking.

Let us also acknowledge the diversity of the Community and Voluntary Sector. We refer to NGOs and NFPs, to community groups and associations and to charities.* Let us note that the Voluntary sector serves the community – that is, serves a particular community of interest. And it’s this range of interests that we ignore when we refer to them with the blanket term ‘community’.

Trouble is, says a local political commentator, our sense of community has withered because of diversity. He is referring to the decline of ‘people like me’ sense of community in favour of the unequal relations of ‘us and them’. There we have yet another interpretation of ‘community’ where you can be either in, or out.

Social and political histories point to the division of labour, the evolution of the state, the development of mass urban society as significant contributions to the fragmentation of our sense of ‘community’. At the same time the human aspiration of being and belonging has not gone away. The idea of ‘community’ is a contrast to the impersonality of large scale organisation, whether it is political, economic or social: we use ‘community’ as a counterpoint to the alienation of modern life. **

My Neighbours Day gathering brought out nostalgic reminiscences for the old days, the time before urban migration and mobility of the latter half of the 20th century, before the busyness of modern living kicked in, before health and safety regulations proscribed the freedoms we enjoyed in childhood. There is no going back, even though we cling to the old ideas. Neighbours Day activities remind us there are still new ways to interpret new meanings of ‘community’.

…………….

* For classification of New Zealand’s non-profit sector see this publication.

** See Plant, Raymond (1974) Community and Ideology, an Essay in Applied Social Philosophy London: Routledge, Keegan Paul Ltd.

September 23, 2012

Why Else Would You Volunteer?

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language, Motivation, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , at 4:46 am by Sue Hine

At the beginning of this month I was extolling the nature and philosophy of volunteering, quoting words like Citizenship, Engagement, Generosity, and a Felt Sense of Community.  No question, these words represent the best concepts of volunteering.

Except….  Unless….  Until….  I start thinking about the other reasons why, in this day and age, people give their time and skills and energies, for free, for community benefit.

I have banged on a lot about the Gift Relationship, spoken in hushed words about the virtues of Altruism and the Spirit of Community.  You see, all these words (they deserve no less than Capital Letters) are the true representations of volunteering.  Except….  Unless….  Until….

Now it is time to get real, time to see just how inclusive volunteering and volunteer programmes can be, outside the Goodwill and Community Solidarity philosophy.

At the local Op-Shop the customer service volunteers are pretty much all older people.  They tell me their time here is the social highlight of their week.  Yes, they are unpaid, and all there by free will, though their ulterior motive is socialisation, to meet and greet people, have a conversation and a bit of a laugh.  And maybe a chance to pick up a bargain as well.

Also on the staff at this Shop are the sorters and cleaners, a right mix of volunteers.   There are young people looking for work experience to put on their CVs.  There are migrants and refugees practising English language skills.  There are the people working off community sentences.   Others are there as evidence of job-seeking in order to retain their welfare payments.

In the administration office of another organisation I meet the ‘interns’, mostly students on placement for their applied degree qualification, and a fair smattering of new migrants.  Unpaid internships are welcomed as work experience to improve job prospects, especially for these groups.

And then I come across the team of Corporate Volunteers who are out on their ‘day-release’ programme, that annual event that demonstrates ‘corporate social responsibility’.  They have engaged with the Department of Conservation to check out bait traps in a protected reserve.  Whoa, I think.  The exercise is likely to be a whole bit of hiking, and possibly encounters with some health and safety hazards in the not-so-nice parts of the day when dealing with captives in the traps.  It is quite a bit different from their day job.  Next time they might prefer to offer pro bono services of their professional skills in governance, or in organisational management and administration.

Volunteering is not what it used to be.  The ideas of ‘free will’ and ‘compulsion’ have been mixed and stirred in a blender.  (I can even confess to volunteering as an escape from tele-marketing calls.) Take a look at Volunteering Tasmania and how they are describing volunteering for our new age:

  • It has a direct benefit to the community and the volunteer (whether the benefit is tangible or intangible);
  • It is undertaken by choice; and
  • It is unpaid. (However, the volunteer may receive reasonable or appropriate reimbursement for expenses incurred that are associated with the role, and/or may receive a monetary or other incentive/reward.)

That’s the commonsense reality of volunteering in the 21st century for you.  Volunteering is always a two-way stretch of reciprocal benefits.

Because, whatever the reason for volunteering, the experience of working for nothing is also an exposure to community services, to the values and commitment supporting development in our communities.  Many a volunteer has extended self-interest to an employment career in the community and voluntary sector.  Or a corporate volunteer programme has introduced people to organisations and opportunities for on-going volunteering.

Understanding these details gives you a head start in recruiting volunteers, and in knowing how to reinforce the rewards, and how to retain volunteer support.

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