August 25, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

Posted in Good news stories, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , at 3:32 am by Sue Hine

This headline heralded the stories of community response to the 6.6 earthquake that shook up Wellington and the northeast of the South Island last Friday.

Some 30% of the population of Seddon (epicentre of the quake) has left the town.  That is balanced by the numbers of volunteers coming in to help with the clean-up of damaged property and to support people under stress.


In Wellington the ‘flight response’ to the shaking caused a rapid exit of buildings and congregating on the streets.  Frightened people were comforted in the street by other workers, not necessarily from their own workplace.   A mass exit from the city created choked-up roads and the shut-down of the rail network left hundreds of commuters stranded.  That’s when motorists turned up to offer a rides to people trying to get home.  The Wellington Student Volunteer Army got into action for the second time in a month with sound advice on their FB page.

My neighbour was knocking on my door the minute the house stopped its shuddering.  She is not a stranger, but it was good to share what had happened and to laugh with relief that we were OK, and with no obvious damage to our homes.

Volunteers are always there it seems, coming out of the woodwork just when they are needed.  They make great news headlines in times like these.

Yet most of the literature on volunteering (research, reports, conference papers – and the blogs) is concerned with ‘formal volunteering’ where organisations are running structured volunteer programmes.    That’s a pity, because there is a wealth of unpaid work going on under the radar.  ‘Informal volunteers’, the people who help and support family and whanau or community efforts outside the home do not always belong to a particular service or organisation.  They are everywhere, most often doing what comes naturally.

And here’s why:

Volunteerism is a basic expression of human relationships. It is about people’s need to participate in their societies and to feel that they matter to others. We strongly believe that the social relationships intrinsic to volunteer work are critical to individual and community well-being. The ethos of volunteerism is infused with values including solidarity, reciprocity, mutual trust, belonging and empowerment, all of which contribute significantly to quality of life.

This paragraph is the opening statement in United Nations’ State of the World’s Volunteerism Report 2011This overview makes compelling reading: the ideals might be lofty, but the point is the universal embrace of volunteer participation.

So we should not be surprised at the very human responses to an earthquake in Wellington.  Surely the Christchurch experience has taught us a thing or two about the realities of community relationships: the kindness offered at times of stress is not from strangers but from the people of my community.

March 25, 2012

The Season for Volunteer Recognition

Posted in Celebrations, Good news stories, Leadership, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , at 3:38 am by Sue Hine

It’s that time of the year again.  The annual awards and accolades for volunteer service are being handed out and hitting the headlines.

A few weeks ago New Zealanders of the Year were announced, and the Kiwibank Local Heroes awards are percolating around the country right now.  In Christchurch 140 groups and individuals have been recognised as Earthquake Heroes.  Volunteers who helped with the clean-up from the Rena oil-spill in the Bay of Plenty recently enjoyed a beach party.  This weekend it is the turn to learn the winners of Trustpower National Community Awards.

I have not counted how many people are standing tall and proud.  I am observing instead how volunteer service is valued and appreciated all around New Zealand, in small and large communities, urban and rural.  Indeed both Kiwibank and Trustpower sponsor awards for a whole community or community group, and citations illustrate just how much collective volunteering can achieve.

The categories for these awards are not restrictive; it seems volunteers in all population groups, sector interests, and social issues can have equal chances of nomination and selection.  There are few nominees in paid positions, and even fewer mentions of the major non-profit organisations.  Mostly the awards go to individuals associated with informal groups, community-based and community-led, or to the collective efforts of a community organisation that would otherwise not make national headlines.

There are no Managers or Coordinators of volunteers in the line-up, but there is a great deal of leadership evident in the citations of achievements.  Words like ‘passion’, ‘commitment’ and ‘inspiring’ appear quite frequently.  I suspect managers of volunteers could find something to learn from these community leaders.

The best volunteering story of the year has to be that of Sam Johnson, leader of the Student Volunteer Army (SVA) which took on the muddy job of cleaning up liquefaction following the Christchurchearthquake of September 2010, and again in February 2011.  I am sure he did not set out to demonstrate the art of managing spontaneous volunteering and the effectiveness of the SVA, nor to seek the crown of Young New Zealander of the Year.  The achievements of Sam and his team are remarkable, and the international recognition that has followed is well-deserved.  The full account of how SVA was established and what it did is available through the on-line journal e-volunteerism, here.

Congratulations to all the winners, and thanks to the people who did the nominating.  The awards do not and cannot account for all the volunteers who keep on keeping on giving their time, energy and skills to their communities. But the awards sure draw attention to what volunteers achieve, to the spirit of community, and to inspiring leadership.