OzVPM HOT TOPIC – FEBRUARY 2004
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
Over the past few months I’ve heard an increasing number of people comment that it was time we started to think about using an alternate title to that of ‘volunteer’.
The most often cited reason for this appears to be the belief that the ‘V’ word no longer has the same relevance or meaning that it once did within mainstream society. Proponents of this theory suggest that if we are to recruit and attract new (and perhaps younger) people to volunteering, then maybe the current terminology needs to make way for something new.
Whenever this idea is mentioned, it tends to set off a number of polarised thoughts in my mind.
Allow me to share a few of them with you.
Firstly, let me state unequivocally that I do support the idea of re-labelling specific volunteer positions. For far too long, we have been caught up in automatically adding the title ‘volunteer’ as either a prefix or suffix to every volunteer position ever created! I’ve even heard of unpaid volunteer support workers referred to as ‘volunteer volunteer coordinators’!
For instance, why give the person who assists with your administration and clerical duties a job title such as ‘clerical volunteer’ , ‘office volunteer’ , ‘volunteer office worker’ or ‘volunteer administration assistant’ ? Why not simply call them the ‘office manager’, ‘administrator’ or ‘clerical assistant’?
Surely the more important part of any title is what a person actually does and not what their rate of pay is – after all, we don’t use titles like ‘paid CEO’, ’employed gardener’ or ‘salaried bus driver’ for staff who are on the payroll!
Other possible benefits of this approach include:
– Potential volunteers finding job titles challenging and fresh (and therefore being more likely to want to be involved)
– Breaking down the ‘them and us’ barriers that sometimes arise between paid and unpaid staff
– The enhancement of greater team development opportunities
While the benefits of an approach of this kind are many, let me at this point also acknowledge that they can easily lead to issues of demarcation if not implemented with care and consultation.
So what about the term ‘volunteer’ in the broader context?
– Is it ‘out of date’?
– Does the volunteer ‘brand’ no longer have relevance to a new generation?
– Do people conjure up images only of grey haired old ladies when they hear the name ‘volunteer’ mentioned?
– Is this terminology really the ‘root of all evil’ in relation to the apparent lack of available new volunteers in the marketplace?
– Should we find a term that is newer and more relevant?
For me, the answer is a resounding ‘NO’.
Here are just a couple of thoughts about why I don’t believe that the term is out of date and some reasons I do not think we need to replace it for a younger and more up-to-date version.
One third of Australians over the age of 15 already volunteer on a regular basis and the percentages are similar in many other countries in this region. While many of these volunteer duties already have titles that do not include the word ‘volunteer’ (eg coach, fire fighter, lifeguard or Board member), these same people were clearly able to identify their activities as being voluntary, when questioned by Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) staff in 2000.
Further, we do not live in a vacuum, and it would be naive to think that the two thirds of the population who do not volunteer, have not gained at least some level of understanding about the variety of volunteer roles that exist, from the one third who do volunteer. If one in three of us volunteer, then there are also certainly many role models around to demonstrate the changing face of volunteering.
Most volunteers are proud of the title they wear and the work that they do. Volunteering is based on reciprocity – meaning that while volunteers want to give of themselves, they also need something in return.
The ABS figures reflect this beautifully.
When asked the question of why they currently volunteered, the number one reason that the respondents stated was ‘to help others / community’ closely followed by ‘personal satisfaction’. This accurately reflects the notion of reciprocity (ie. a ‘giving’ reason was # 1, a ‘getting’ reason # 2) and indicates that people are proud of the work they do in an unpaid / volunteer capacity.
Let’s face it, the 50,000 unpaid staff at the Sydney Olympics did not march through the streets to fanfare from the adoring public because they had participated in the Games as a ‘greeter’ or ‘bus driver’. While these descriptive titles were important at the time the Olympics were being staged, the many thousands of helpers from Sydney 2000 later marched and accepted our accolades, with the collective pride of being recognised as a ‘volunteer’.
We have a strong ‘volunteer’ culture in our region to build on. With national bodies in our region already having names like;
– Volunteering Australia
– Volunteering New Zealand and
– National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre’ (Singapore)
and with state / provincial bodies boasting titles such as;
– Volunteering SA
– Volunteering NSW and
– Volunteering Auckland,
we have resisted the temptation of following some of our North American cousins in adopting more non-descriptive titles while at the same time cementing the title ‘volunteer’ well into our vocabulary.
The logistics of beginning to use a different phrase (s) is mind blowing. If some are already suggesting that ‘volunteer’ is not understood (after how long?) then what chance do we have to put in an alternative that will be universally branded, marketed and understood by all members of our society? How would we even begin to agree on one (or maybe more) alternate titles?
So what’s the solution?
I believe that the solution lies in working hard to re-brand the ‘product’ we already have and utilising more exciting and dynamic volunteer job titles at a local level will certainly assist in this regard.
Let me examine an analogy from Coca~Cola.
To reach new audiences, the Coca-Cola company has started to offer a new and exciting range of flavours to attract a new audience. First there was ‘diet coke’ then came ‘diet coke with lemon’, ‘vanilla coke’ and then most recently we have had the introduction of ‘cherry coke’.
Note two things – firstly, new flavours (or ways of doing things) have the potential to attract a new and different audience. Secondly, the new flavours have never lost the Coke tag. Not only do new buyers experience something new ~ they also have the Coke experience!
Maybe that’s what we need to offer our volunteers – something new, but something still carefully branded as being a volunteer experience.
Now it’s your turn.
– Do you agree / disagree with my sentiments?
– Do you think that the term ‘volunteer’ has past its use by date?
– Do you believe we need to work hard to preserve the term ‘volunteer’?
– What other thoughts do you have to add to this debate?
Let’s hear what you think.