April 22, 2017

Community & Voluntary Sector: What Do We Mean?

Posted in Civil Society, Language of Volunteering, Politics of volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, Volunteer Diversity tagged , , at 11:34 pm by Sue Hine

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The collective noun of Community & Voluntary Sector is widely used. The words trip of the tongue whenever we want to make a point of how important the sector is, or to argue the significance of volunteer contribution to organisations and communities. Or to point out that this or that organisation is getting a raw deal.

Trouble is, ‘community’ invokes anything from my local neighbourhood, to a particular set of organisations or particular groups of people, and then links with the broader term of Civil Society. It’s a blanket word used so loosely we risk drowning the distinctions – and the voices – that are collectively represented in ‘community’.

You can read all about the facts and values of ‘community’ in Raymond Plant’s Community and Ideology: an Essay in Applied Philosophy (1974). (OK, it’s an oldie but still a goodie.) Plant argues there is no overall definition of community because there is always a value element implicit in using the word: when we talk about what a community is we are also inferring what a community ought to be like, and we may be talking about several different forms of community at the same time. Forty years later we can add ‘networks’ to the meaning of ‘community’, and ‘online communities’ and even global ones.

The Community & Voluntary Sector is also beset with a number of non-titles, like NGOs, NPIs, NFPs, or it is an also-ran as Third (and sometimes Fourth) Sector. Then there is the legal status of organisations: registered charity, incorporated society, or simply a non-entity, a neighbourhood group that organises an informal street clean-up. Or you can categorise organisations by their field of activity, and there are twelve fields according to New Zealand definitions for the John Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project (2009). You could also say organisations contracted to provide services on behalf of government are yet another category, one that tends to dominate conversations about the sector.

I wish we could find another way of expressing a ‘community’ voice that does not lump us all in together, obscuring all the myriad services and groups catering for human diversity and their interests.

Now think about ‘voluntary’, another word used loosely, and then some. Yes, there is a fundamental applied definition of ‘work that is freely given without expectation of reward’, but then count all the different ways of volunteering, the different sectors of interest – and vested interests – and the diversity of volunteers and their motivations.  No wonder we run up against people and organisations that do not ‘get’ volunteering, that do not understand the word’s real meaning.

Volunteering is both a verb and a philosophic concept.  Our beliefs about people and our community relationships will flavour the sort of volunteering we undertake and why we volunteer. Yet too often organisations engaging volunteers have not thought beyond ‘unpaid labour’. There’s a lot more behind ‘working for free’ than donating one’s time.

Consider the different forms of volunteering:

  • Volunteering can be both formal (engaged with an organisation) and informal (helping people outside family obligations).
  • Volunteering can be regular or episodic, short- or long-term.
  • Volunteering can be undertaken as part of Corporate Social Responsibility by employees.
  • Volunteering includes activism for social or political change.
  • Volunteering as obligation, a civic duty.

And the roles undertaken by volunteers:

  • Governance
  • Personal support, befriending
  • Team leadership
  • Event organisation and participation (including fundraising)
  • Administration, from reception and clerical input to accounting
  • Pro bono professional services
  • Research
  • Exploring new approaches to service delivery – innovation

Or the drivers for volunteers:

  • Supporting a cause
  • A desire to connect, to belong in a community, to be useful
  • Gaining work experience (for Interns and unemployed people)

So next time a report is issued on numbers of volunteers, the hours they contribute and the $ value of their contribution to the organisation (or to GDP), start asking a few questions about what the volunteers are working at, and what they achieve. Think about just what sort of difference they make, and exactly why ‘you could not manage without them’.

And then do some hard thinking about how you talk about ‘community and voluntary sector’.  Is its purpose to contribute to GDP, or to social well-being and community cohesion – to be part of a strong Civil Society? Or is this sector largely the ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff of economic and social inequity?

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August 31, 2014

Is it Folly, or a bit of Fun?

Posted in Good news stories, Marketing, Trends in Volunteering tagged , , , at 5:06 am by Sue Hine

images0D14JGBNThe ice bucket challenge has swept the world, becoming more intense over the past month.  Not just a self-indulgent YouTube and Facebook craze, the challenge is also a phenomenal fund-raiser for more organisations than the original intention of supporting ALS Association.

It has also garnered rather a lot of cynical commentary.  Celebrities from Presidents to Pop stars have bared their discomfort and attracted their imitators.  It’s an ego trip, nothing but narcissism, a waste of water in drought zones, say the columnists.  Corporate challengers have found yet another means for promoting their business.  Essentially the challenge is “a middle-class wet-T-shirt contest for armchair clicktivists”.  It’s a virus more contagious than other recent crazes combined.  There are also risks to your health if you have a heart condition, and the shock of really icy water can be risky too.  So it’s just another on-line folly, right?

More substantive criticism is slanted at charity organisations hijacking the idea for their own fundraising, though Cancer Society in New Zealand found they were unwitting beneficiaries early in July.  Wikipedia offers a summary of the saga, and a long list of on-line references if you want to know more.

This craze has attracted huge numbers of people to respond to the challenge, volunteering to undergo the drenching indignity and to turn it into a public event – which draws attention to the cause.  There is more: (1) undertaking the challenge is also a commitment to donating money, and (2) issuing a challenge to three more people.  With that process in place the explosive outcome is not so surprising.  And we all love a challenge, specially when it’s a bit of fun – don’t we?

Whether folly or for fun, the Ice-Bucket challenge is attracting voluntary effort everywhere.  It’s yet another example of social media creativity which must be exciting marketing and fundraising managers in the non-profit world.  Other initiatives include Givealittle, the zero fees fundraising website, and the TV station which takes up hard-luck stories and raises $500,000 to support disadvantaged kids.

What if we turned these $ donors into time volunteers?  Not all the Ice-Bucketers at once of course.  What would it take to get people thinking outside their self-indulgent mode, showing interest in community and commitment to a cause?  It’s not so hard when you’ve got an attractive interactive website, and you’re social media-savvy.  It’s retaining that interest and commitment that can test an organisation and its manager of volunteers.  Just have to make sure we can keep the fun in volunteering!

August 19, 2012

Enlightenment

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Conference communication, Language tagged , , , , at 4:47 am by Sue Hine

There were two days this week of intensive concentration. Two days of learning new ways of expressing old ideas, two days of interpreting new inspirations for a new age.

There were two events: one was a national conference, and the other a brief breakfast session at Parliament hosted by Jacinda Adern MP, on behalf of ComVoices. Both covered common elements: community engagement and citizenship; the business of funding community projects and enterprise; and different models of operation.

Nothing is forever. We live in a world of constant change. There’s something new every day. Yes, I know all the clichés. But there is something more going on here.

The meanings of ordinary words are revitalised:
Citizenship is you and me and the responsibilities we have to our community and to each other;
Participation is being engaged in our communities and networks, and engaged in the process of change;
Sustainability is creating something that is not just a one-off attempt, and it is also the big word in better management of our environment;
Collaboration and Partnership will drive the operations of community groups in times of austerity; and are the key facilitators in developing a social enterprise.

Hackneyed terms and phrases are revisited and rephrased:
• The old catch-cry of Making a Difference morphs into Doing Real Good, implying there are tangible results in what you do. (And begging the question of defining what we mean by ‘Real Good’.) Well, we are learning fast about outcomes and results-based funding conditions.
Community gets to be described and understood as a philosophy, a collective value, and not just a blanket neutral term for everyone out there, or the generalisation for why our organisation exists. There are many different forms of ‘community’.

When we turn these words and ideas into action there is a whole new vocabulary to learn, and new ways of doing business. The new vocabulary begins with Social Enterprise, and the new business model is based on collaboration and partnership between business, philanthropy, government agencies and communities and community organisations.

That’s the beauty of the new ways of thinking: we can escape from our silos of Public, Private and Third or Non-Profit Sectors (and eliminate perceptions of community as third-rate, or non-anything) to find the new view and new solutions. It’s happening now, somewhere close to you. Go find out more, and be a part of the change. Or read about the international trend for NGOs to embrace profit-making social enterprises.

Going on three hundred and fifty years ago there was an earlier Enlightenment, a period of awakening in Europe, of the beginnings of formal science, philosophy, economics and the rise of capitalism and industrialisation. It was also called the Age of Reason, because it was argued that rational thinking provided more answers to the mysteries of life than religious beliefs. One of the facilitators of this new age was the invention of the Coffee House, where you could enjoy the new stimulant brought by the merchant traders from Africa and South America. Here was the place where intellectuals met to discuss the issues of the day, to form political policies and to plot the French Revolution.

Next time you go to a business meeting at your favourite café give some thought to how your discussion might influence the new Enlightenment.

July 21, 2012

Getting it Together

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Language tagged , , , , , at 11:11 pm by Sue Hine

There’s an old word getting serious attention these days, giving me pause for some serious thinking.

Collaboration is a word that denotes ‘working together’, for a common goal. It is a word that connotes shared interests, which can lead to shared resources.

In my mind Collaboration is associated with Cooperation, Consideration of others, Collectives, and of course, Community.  The idea of Collaboration invokes team-work, collective problem-solving, multi-party representation and partnerships.  At the end of the day Collaboration has the potential to offer a gestalt, a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Collaboration has been turning up in different contexts, so it is starting to look like a trend.  Here’s the evidence:

  • The practice of Public/Private Partnerships (PPPs) is not a new form of collaboration, though it is a hot topic in New Zealand at present.
  • I am following the rise and rise of social enterprise, and the partnerships negotiated between business and community organisations, between government and community.
  • I note one philanthropic funding source is encouraging joint ventures for community-based services.
  • The influence of community organisations on government policy is limited by the diversity of organisations, and I hear a passionate plea for collaboration, at least at a national level.  Dammit, we need to get our act together.
  • Genuine partnerships between Not for Profits and Government, corporates and clients are “crucial to the achievement of positive social outcomes”, is the theme for a conference in Western Australia later this year.
  • Volunteering New Zealand’s Management of Volunteers Project has certainly benefited from shared information and a collective approach to developing the programme.  There is a great deal of collaboration from diverse interests to achieve an outcome that will be mutually beneficial. The Draft Competencies are now out for consultation.  (Note how ‘consultation’ can also be interpreted as a relation of ‘collaboration’.)

What is going on here?  I know we can all be ground down in efforts to be heard, so “if you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em”.  I know how funding pressures can push an organisation into new collaborative ventures with another party, outside the regular frame of reference – or out of existence altogether.

I also know about ‘patch protection’, how proposals for economies of scale like sharing back-room functions with other organisations never go anywhere, and how a ‘silo mentality’ can blinker many a community organisation to the potential benefits of shared interests and collaboration with others.

Because the way the world works is through competition, right?  Evolution determines survival of the fittest.  Supply and demand in the market place predicates which product, which business wins out.  Business mergers are more about swallowing and destroying competitors than a re-invention of enterprise. Politics is all about winning over rivals, or the other party.  Right now we are heading into the opening of the London Olympics and a few weeks of achieving individual glory and national rivalry to top the medal tally tables, no matter how much we talk up the spirit of internationalism.  All of which is the antithesis of collaboration.

I daresay the business of competition will never go away.  We will still want to cheer the All Blacks to another World Cup, and to climb a few pegs on international tables.

Yet, the signs of collaboration on the radar suggest there are some new dynamics entering the business of political, social and economic organisation.  The opportunities for ‘doing good’, for achieving qualitative and positive social change are there if we go look.  As Tom Levitt says in the preface to his book Partners for Good, “In today’s Big Society it is said that ‘we are all in this together’”.

Does anyone notice there is never a mention of volunteers and volunteering?  Nor of managers of volunteers who have been practising collaboration for years, working with volunteers to get great outcomes wherever they are engaged.

 

April 29, 2012

In the Wind

Posted in A Bigger Picture tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:44 pm by Sue Hine

I’ve been to a few meetings lately, listened to presentations and viewed the power point slides.  They were not meetings about volunteering or volunteer management, but the information and ideas sure made me sit up and take notice.

Here is my take on some of the straws in the wind that have come my way.

  • Demographic trends indicate a shrinking working-age population

We’ve heard about the dramatic increase of older populations for decades.  On the flip side is a decline in people of working age, which will give us the benefit of lower unemployment.  We are going to get ZPG without even trying. The bad news is a big revenue problem for government and a rise in resource demands.  All this, on top of a national economy struggling to recover from the impact of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

NGOs, already struggling to maintain their funding base, will be under pressure to do more with less.  In rural areas where population change will be greater community organisations will face shrinking resources, of both funding and volunteers.  There are serious implications for national organisations providing outreach services in provincial areas.  On the other hand there could be opportunities to work more closely with local government, to develop partnerships with other organisations and subsequent economies of scale.

  • Collaboration, Participation, Innovation

These words are the catch-cry for change in the community sector, the drivers for action.  Proposed changes in both central and local government offer an opportunity for community organisations to articulate a new view, to occupy a new space and to develop new coalitions.  Yes!

Can we do it?

  • Collaboration is the buzzword of the month

There are plenty of models to follow: community development partnerships, through community engagement, the effective use of social capital and linked with social enterprise.  None of these words are new, but they gain increased currency in a time of sector uncertainty.  What is new is the trend towards alliances with the business sector and philanthropic trusts.  But I worry about collaboration, and whether it is another word for the public and private sectors to take control while proffering the hand of partnership.

  • “A new phase of capitalism, where new ways of creating wealth are identified”

In all the talk of Social Investment and Social Impact and Outcomes it is difficult to see who benefits.  Governments can transfer risks to the community sector.  Social investment from the private sector could lead to creaming off the best of NFPs and ignoring others, thus creating new forms of underclass.  It also leads to the Marketisation of Charities.  That sounds more like a death knell for the sector’s capacity for innovation.  When organisations become risk-aversive it is too easy to curtail services in areas where outcomes and impacts are less impressive.  The spectre of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor is resurrected, specially when funding gets tagged to results.

  • “The community sector is not considered a peer of Government

Too true, I sigh, and has been so for decades, despite terminology like Third Sector and concepts of Civil Society.  Volunteers and their organisations might enjoy praise and platitudes of appreciation, but never do they get to be equals at negotiating tables.

So I am disappointed the recent report on public services makes never a mention of relations with NGOs, NFPs or the community sector.  It is like these organisations do not exist.

Well, it is proclaimed, the Government and the community sector need to get to know each other better. They need to build mutual trust and understanding, not stand-off bargaining.  They need to reduce the power imbalance, get a pay-off for both funders and recipients (not to mention the beneficiaries).  I wish.

Yes, I know the NFP sector is complex.  We struggle to establish a common definition and language, and to determine the essence of the sector.  Yet the diversity of communities and organisations means a single voice and a unifying philosophy is unrealistic.

Yes, there is room for collaboration where there are shared interests.  Yes, we need to break down the silos and patch protection.  And Yes, we have been in the business of change for generations.  Except this time it seems like the change is being done to us, and not in the spirit of community development.

To gain a stake in the future it we need to stake a claim, on our terms, for the territory of our communities and their missions.

April 1, 2012

“Volunteer Associations”

Posted in A Bigger Picture, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , , at 4:33 am by Sue Hine

Last week’s review of national awards honouring volunteers pointed up the extent of voluntary activity outside the mainstream not-for-profit institutions, and generally beyond a formal volunteer programme.  I was reminded of my long ago introduction to sociology, and early studies of New Zealand society.

Forty years ago I was reading about New Zealanders as ‘a nation of joiners’.  Research in 1970 in a country town of 14,000 people found there were 200 organisations, and 60% of the population belonged to one or more of them.  You could find similar patterns all over the country, and I was part of them.

Forty years ago academic research and writing never mentioned ‘volunteers’ or ‘volunteering’, despite the existence of health and social service organisations that had been active for many years, largely supported by volunteers.  Organisations were lumped together as “voluntary associations”, regardless of purpose or function.  Or they were pressure groups, sometimes regarded with suspicion by dismissive politicians. Our open political system, said one writer, “has what amounts to an unrecognised fourth estate” [after legislature, judiciary and administration].  Voluntary participation in communities was surely taken for granted.

At last count (2004) there were 97,000 non-profit organisations in New Zealand.  More recent studies (2008) estimate that 67% of the non-profit workforce are volunteers, and that more than one third of the population aged 10 and over volunteer each year.  It seems we are still a nation of joiners, though under changed circumstances.

Over the past twenty-five years Government has devolved responsibility for delivering many services to community-based organisations, and volunteers can play a large part in these.  Government organisations like Sport NZ (formerly SPARC) and the Department of Conservation are directly engaged with volunteers and supporting volunteering.  A formal relationship accord between government and communities of Aotearoa NewZealand was signed in 2010.

Terminology shifted too.  We absorbed new labels and acronyms: non-governmental organisation (NGO); non-profit institution (NPI); and not-for-profit (NFP).  Collectively, community-based organisations are tagged the Third Sector.

The focus on service delivery and ‘consumers’ and on accountability brought an attendant raft of regulations, eroding the real virtues of volunteer-involving organisations.  Their capacity for developing creative solutions and experimenting with new practice methodologies was hard to fit into the new environment, even though volunteering and volunteers remained an essential part of an organisation’s operations.  Neither did the new model enhance belonging and social connectedness in local communities.

“Voluntary associations” never really went away, but somehow dropped under the radar.  We are still joiners, because we are hard-wired to the idea of community, to social connectedness.  The philosophy of community is as old as – well – communities, and history is chequered with examples of community-led development and change on social, political and economic fronts.

So I should not be surprised to observe some winds of change over the past decade.  Concepts of Civil Society and social capital are re-surfacing in mainstream discussion and actions.  Social entrepreneurs are showing us the way to create sustainable change in our communities.  We can even put a positive spin on NGOs by re-naming them Social Profit Organisations.  And wouldn’t you know it: the theme for this year’s Volunteer Awareness Week is Building Communities through Volunteering.

There is much to encourage us in the present state of volunteering.  National and local awards for volunteers are evidence of a depth of experience and commitment to communities of all kinds.  “Voluntary Associations” deserve more air-time because their activities can build flourishing communities.

No doubt the next forty years will record more social and political change. I am in no doubt that “voluntary associations” will participate in that change, if not leading the charge.