December 10, 2012

Obligatory Volunteering

Posted in Language, Recognition of Volunteering tagged , at 3:21 am by Sue Hine

I dug myself a bit of a hole recently when I referred to ‘obligatory volunteering’ during a workshop presentation.  I was using a collective term to include internships, court imposed community sentences, and conditions for receiving welfare payments.  Woops – ‘obligation’ and ‘volunteering’ in the same breath is too much like coercion, and I was presented very smartly with examples to demonstrate that ‘obligatory volunteering’ is a contradiction in terms.

It seems I have challenged the accepted principles of volunteering: that it is unpaid activity undertaken by choice, for the direct benefit of the community or organisation and to the volunteer.   So now I am ‘obliged’ to justify my choice of words.

  • Volunteer Internships with community organisations can be a training requirement for many professional occupations, or for gaining university ‘credits’.  Volunteering England describes a volunteer internship as

a time-limited volunteer placement that allows a person to gain practical experience by undertaking an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment, individuals or groups other than(or in addition to) close relatives.

  •  Hours of Community Service, as sentenced by the Courts.  There is certainly some compulsion here, in terms of penalties for non-compliance.  But the work is intended to benefit the community and it is unpaid.
  • Welfare beneficiaries: in New Zealand volunteering is encouraged as “a great way to get work experience, learn new skills and help a community”.  But it is also clear that welfare payments are subject to obligations that come with sanctions.

Volunteer Centres can take a lead role in the placement of people coming to volunteering by these different routes.  A purist may argue there is limited or no free will in these contexts, yet people still retain the choice of what sort of work, and which organisation they will work for.  Indeed, they can come knocking at the door to ask about opportunities.  Certainly there is mutual benefit to both volunteer and organisation and many continue volunteering long after the external ‘obligations’ have been met.

Are these conditions so very different from engaging volunteers who come from other directions with a different range of motivations?

Management practice for a volunteer programme may require volunteers to sign a contract related to their work.  There are plenty of codes of practice describing the boundaries of volunteering.  Or there are Rights and Responsibilities charters where expected ‘obligations’ are spelled out for both volunteers and the organisation.

These measures do not carry the weight of a legal contract, nor are they like the marketing ploy of “free quote, no obligation”.  They are simply the means to protect volunteers and the organisation, and service users.

There’s another sense of ‘obligation’ that helps broaden thinking about volunteering.  It’s that age-old moral code of social responsibility – our obligations to each other in our communities.  Survival depended on interdependence in pre-historic times, and still does, in the face of war, famine or natural disaster.  An obligation can also be termed a promise, a duty and a moral commitment.

When you think about it, ‘obligatory volunteering’ comes in different forms and is but one strand of a wide range of activities that we call volunteering.

So let’s be expansive in our interpretations of volunteering, as encouraged by a UNV / Civicus publication Broadening Civic Space through voluntary action: 

a wide range of activities, including traditional forms of mutual aid and self-help, formal service delivery and other forms of civic participation, undertaken of free will, for the general public good and where monetary reward is not the principal motivating factor (UN 2001).

I reckon this scope allows me to include ‘obligatory volunteering’ in the discourse.  I think it is quite useful as a figure of speech to apply to some forms of volunteering.


This post is the last for 2012.  I’ll be back with New Year reflections late in January.