OzVPM HOT TOPIC – NOVEMBER 2003
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
Anyone that knows me will be in no doubt as to what a strong advocate I am for the volunteering sector in the Australasian region.
We do most things as well as or in some cases better, than our counterparts overseas. A fact I believe we can be justifiably proud of.
There are however several critical areas that we need to continue to build, if we are to truly develop the volunteering scene ‘down under’ to its fullest potential.
One of the most obvious of these relates to the apparent lack of conference, workshop and seminar opportunities dealing with volunteers, volunteering and volunteer program management throughout Australasia. Unlike other parts of the world, where population bases may be larger, we do not have a strong infrastructure for this type of learning opportunity – something I believe is very much a weakness for the sector in our region.
There are a few notable exceptions.
Volunteering SA, have hosted an annual state conference of a very high standard over many years, while Volunteering Australia also host a national event of some description every twelve months (the last two years VA have hosted closed conferences specifically for volunteer centres around the country).
A little further abroad, the National Centre for Volunteering in Singapore also host an annual volunteering conference, while Volunteering New Zealand hosted its first ever national get together earlier this year – an event I’d truly love to be able to add to the above list as a new yearly occurrence.
To my knowledge (and I am quite happy to be corrected) other professional development opportunities have tended to occur in a much more infrequent and haphazard manner. In fact I’d go so far as to suggest that with the exception of the above, I could probably count on two hands, the number of generic volunteer conferences held in our region over the last 5 years!
This lack of conference opportunities is a cause of concern for a number of reasons – here are just a few:
Our region is just far too vast not to be making available a variety of conference opportunities. At present, it appears volunteer program managers in Adelaide and Melbourne are well catered for, but should you live in far north Queensland, Western Australia or New Zealand, then the additional costs associated with travel and accommodation begins to make those existing conferences on the calendar a more costly exercise.
Personal and Organisational Development
One of the most beneficial elements in attending conferences is the opportunity for Volunteer Program Managers to be able to bring new ideas, contacts and enthusiasm back into their home organisation. The personal growth opportunities are immense as the conference environment often creates opportunities for dialogue that challenge our current biases and reframe both our thinking and ways of operating.
Whether as the result of listening to a motivational speaker, learning about some new research or simply networking over a cup of tea, the ideas we learn can be life changing in terms of the way we approach our work or structure our programs.
Development of the sector
Having been lucky enough to attend volunteering conferences all over the world, I can attest first hand to the developmental benefits that can be attained from meeting together as a sector and discussing common themes and problems. Without regular opportunities to network in this way we tend to get too easily caught up in the day-to-day operations of running our programs and are never challenged to do anything meaningful outside our organisations for the broader volunteering community.
Is it purely coincidence that South Australia (who do host an annual conference) are also considered by many to be the Australian ‘hotbed’ for volunteer development?
Another developmental consideration is that conferences offer a great breeding ground for independent trainers & consultants to practice their craft and share their knowledge with the broader volunteer management community. This may be a key reason why we have so few volunteerism specialist consultants and trainers in this part of the world.
So what’s the solution?
Clearly, the hosting of major conferences and workshop opportunities is both an expensive and a time consuming operation, and as a result the organisation of such events really needs to be hosted by an organisation with good resources.
There are however many good ideas that could be considered in helping state, regional and national volunteer groups to host more regular opportunities of this kind.
I invite you all to add your own thoughts to this list:
- Start small. Give consideration to the hosting of ‘mini’ conferences and one-day workshops. This may make the coordination of such events seem a little less daunting to host organisations and may be a great stepping stone for groups to gain the confidence to run larger scale conferences later on.
- Co-host and co-operate. Up until 2000, state volunteer centres around Australia used to host the national volunteering conference on behalf of Volunteering Australia on a rotating basis, which meant that at the very least you could count on a national volunteering conference being hosted in your state at least once every seven years! This at least minimised the attendance costs for delegates living in those states and gave this group exposure to the benefits of a conference experience they might otherwise not have the chance to participate in. The co-hosting of rotating conferences between state and national – or even regional and state volunteer centres may well be something that should be explored again.
- Communicate and coordinate. With proper coordination, national, state and regional centres could minimise some of the costs of bringing international guests to our region. For example, if concurrent workshops were planned across several cities, the volunteer centres in those areas could cost share the expenses associated with airfares and accommodation for overseas experts.
- Promote, promote, promote! The sector should be careful not to make the assumption that people will not travel to other locations for high quality workshop and training opportunities. All too often we don’t promote well enough the opportunities that are available in our own part of the region meaning that some great opportunities are lost.
- Look outside your immediate interest areas. Similarly, we should remember to promote all opportunities that arise dealing with volunteers. Let’s remember that there are a lot of learning opportunities that deal with volunteer issues that are not necessarily called ‘volunteering’ conferences.
- Offer a menu of opportunities and not just ‘meat and three vegies!’ We need to become smarter in what we offer in order to provide conference and training opportunities that cater to all levels of experience in volunteer program management. Sadly, the feedback from conferences is that it was ‘all too basic’ or alternately ‘it went straight over my head’. We need to be mindful of the large number of new people entering employment in this sector while balancing this with the need to provide advanced training to those of us who have been around forever. The merit in ideas such as both master classes and beginner conferences must be more fully explored, and conference organisers must get better at grading the workshop sessions they offer.
- Establishing resources. Why not develop a national or regional database of resources that could be accessed by groups wishing to organise conferences? This resource could include:
– a list of suitable venues in each state or city
– a directory of speakers and their specialties
– feedback reports of previous conferences held around the world
– a register of individuals who had been involved in arranging previous conferences, and who were willing to volunteer their services to other organisations embarking on arranging conferences and workshops for the first time.
- Establishing sponsorship. Let’s all get more creative in finding sources of sponsorship for both conferences and for professional development opportunities for volunteer program managers. We need to be careful not to assume that large multi nationals or government departments will only fund national volunteer bodies. I know of several smaller groups who have been able to secure funding of this kind at a local level.
The time and effort it takes to organise professional development opportunities such as those mentioned in this hot topic are substantial. We must however look at this as being an investment rather than a chore, for the down payment of this labour will surely be repaid with interest and in time will be evident by an even stronger volunteer management community in the Australiasian region.
So let’s hear what you think
- Do you agree or disagree that there are / are not enough opportunities of this kind in our region?
- Do you have ideas to add to the list above that could be considered by organisations wishing to organise professional development sessions?
- Share with us your own personal experiences that have come from attending conferences.
- If you are a visitor to this hot topic from overseas (particularly North America), do you have any observations about the impact of more regular conferences on the volunteerism sector in your part of the world?