OzVPM HOT TOPIC – NOVEMBER 2004
For this month’s Hot Topic column we thought we would do something just a little bit different.
Earlier this year (April 2004), we were treated to a series of advanced level volunteer management workshops conducted by leading Canadian volunteerism author, trainer and consultant Linda Graff. Linda along with her colleague, Anna Allevato, travelled to Australia at the invitation of Volunteering SA, and presented workshops in SA, Victoria, NSW, Queensland and the ACT.
Having given Linda time to catch her breath and contemplate her visit, we thought it was time we asked Linda to share her thoughts and observations on the volunteer movement in Australia.
OzVPM: How did you enjoy your trip to Australia?
LG: I don’t mind admitting to you that spending a month on the road on the other side of the world and flying into an itinerary devised by people largely unknown to us was a daunting prospect. However, as it turned out, my Australian hosts, now friends, thought of everything. The trip was marvellous. Having never been to Australia, the country existed for me only as a collage of stereotypes. I started looking for kangaroos immediately (that means on approach to the Sydney airport) , I knew about vast open spaces (I am from Canada, after all) but had no idea about the shortage of water in your country, and I had really no conception of the extent or beauty of your beaches (yes, I did know that Australia is an island!) . That’s the travelogue part of my response.
The work part was equally stunning. All arrangements were impeccably made. All work travel went off exactly as planned. All events were superbly organized. All sponsors were infinitely attentive to our needs and comfort. After fifteen years of extensive international workshop delivery I can say that this is not always the case.
While my colleague Anna and I only worked in the south east corner of Australia, including sessions delivered in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Mt. Gambier, Clare, Maitland, Brisbane and Canberra, we had the privilege of connecting with peak bodies in several states, and delivering sessions to hundreds of participants along the way.
As an overall observation I would offer that Australian audiences are marvellous to work with. As a trainer one really knows they’re there! Lots of participation; intelligent, respectful but nonetheless lively debate; genuine interest in how things are and are done in other parts of the world; all combined with a sincere welcome and warm hospitality.
In short, the Australian adventure was marvellous, both from the perspective of a visitor and a trainer and I can’t say enough to thank all of our sponsors: Rosemary Sage at Volunteering SA (who took the lead role in making the whole tour happen) , yourself, Andy, at OzVPM, Martin Cowling at People First -Total Solutions, Di Morgan at Volunteering Queensland, Mary Porter at Volunteering ACT, and Marie Fox at Volunteering NSW.
OzVPM: What were your general impressions of the Australian volunteerism scene?
LG: The best way for me to answer that question is to draw comparisons with other parts of the world. I’ll do that in reference to Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom for three reasons. The first is that they are countries that are probably the most similar to Australia in social, political, and economic terms (Western, developed, democratic, etc.) . Second, volunteering at the front line level looks quite similar in all four of these countries. Third, I have worked more or less extensively in all four and feel I have a somewhat informed basis for comparisons.
I think the first thing to say in response to that question is that I was impressed at how advanced the thinking is in the Australian volunteerism scene. And I mean that at three levels.
First, volunteer management there is quite sophisticated. Sure it varies by location, size of organization, and experience of the professional manager involved, but the field, as a whole, is, I think, ahead of that in many parts of the world (we need to remind ourselves that organized volunteering as we know it does not exist in large portions of the world and that in some places volunteering is a hugely foreign concept) , and in most respects, quite in parallel with where it is at in other similar countries such as Canada, the United States, and the UK.
Volunteer program management is a relatively new profession, still finding its way and struggling for recognition as it is in my part of the world. Managers of volunteers are expected to undertake complex work in organizations and communities that are in the midst of fundamental change. It would appear that, like here, they too rarely have sufficient resources to accomplish what they are asked to take on and often work miracles to achieve the success they do, given the support they (don’t) receive and the complexities of the environment in which they work.
Managers of volunteers in Australia are buffeted by many factors similar to those which influence volunteering in North America: liability, changing demographics of the volunteer labour pool, increasing demands for accountability in the voluntary sector, and increasing expectations that volunteers will supplement other service delivery mechanisms. A wide variety of wider social trends are also influencing the shape of volunteering, including, for example, technology, demographic shifts, economic shifts, changes in government spending and the downloading by governments of essential services into the voluntary sector.
Second, there is a well developed system of volunteer resource centres in Australia which is beyond what we have in North America or the UK as far as I know. Each Australian state (and the ACT) has a peak body charged with the overall responsibility to attend to volunteerism, and Volunteer Australia is in the pivotal role as the national peak body. While there are local and state/provincial parallels in the United States, Canada and the UK, they are not consistently present in every state/province, are typically smaller and less well-supported, and generally do not have the same kind of strategic or political mandate as I observed in their Australian counterparts. I hasten to add that there is room for expansion, additional resources, and broader recognition of these bodies in Australia as well, but by comparison, I think you are generally further along than we are in this structural sense.
Australian peak bodies are relatively well organized among themselves through a supportive network at the national and state levels which are, in turn, hooked into a fairly well developed system of local centres throughout the country. Importantly, peak bodies understand and have assumed for themselves a strategic role, not only in relation to the practice of volunteer program management (which seems to be the main, and I would suggest too-narrow focus here), but also in relation to volunteerism, the volunteer movement, and the place of both in Australian society. They have all established important relationships with their respective governments, and all have received recognition (although uneven from state to state) from their respective governments regarding their expertise in relation to volunteerism.
The third point follows directly on from the previous one. There seems, from my short exposure during this trip, to be a fairly high degree of political consciousness about volunteering in Australia. What I mean by this is that at both the state and national level, governments have recognized that:
a) volunteering exists and
b) that it is an important variable in building a civil society, preserving the integrity of the human service delivery system, and in the promotion of social inclusion.
Governments there have engaged in conversations with the sector, have been consulting with (or at least receiving briefs from) state peak bodies, and in many locations, entered into compacts which speak not only to the relationship between the public and the nonprofit sector, but actually acknowledge voluntary participation as a key component of a healthy nonprofit sector. Australia is not unique in this regard, in that the UK also has a compact, and in that various state governments along with the federal government in the United States have certainly noticed volunteerism and are using it in a range of ways to meet political, economic, and social objectives (e.g., the Corporation for National and Community Service, Homeland Security, AmeriCorps, etc.). Canada seems to be the exception. While there is an initiative recently in place to work though private, public, and nonprofit relationships, and while there are some resources now being allocated for the support and study of volunteering in Canada, our peak body network is spotty, peak bodies are either not funded or poorly funded, and for the most part, we lack a strategic vision, limited further by the absence of a political consciousness about how to marshal volunteering into the future.
OzVPM: Are there specific areas that you think require more development?
LG: It is a bit tricky to answer this question for any response other than “no” could be construed as criticism! With the proviso that is not what I intend with this response, a couple of observations come to mind. For your OzVPM readers who are familiar with your hot topic discussion of several months ago regarding the potential manipulation of the volunteer movement by government agendas this will not be a new caution. (See http://www.ozvpm.com/pasthottopics/sept03.php and the ‘Linda’s musings’ section of http://www.lindagraff.ca/ )
We are at a relatively new place in volunteering right now. For decades in your country and in mine and in others, advocates for volunteering and the volunteer movement have been pushing for more public acknowledgement of volunteering and its contributions to individuals, communities and society as a whole. This is my twenty-fifth year in “the business of volunteering” and I personally have spent huge amounts of effort to effect change in that direction. In the “be careful what you ask for vein” we are now seeing attention being given to the volunteer movement and this raises new issues for us to attend to.
Regarding Australia, I worry a bit about your government’s “mutual obligation” philosophy and the way that it is being played out through your peak bodies. Like in the United States, volunteerism peak bodies are not only delivering state programs that more or less compel community involvement under the guise of “volunteering” but may be hitching their future fiscal health and long term survival to these programs. I have argued elsewhere that “mandatory volunteering” is an oxymoron and that the movement needs to be very cautious about government agendas. When the peak body, which I think we mean to be a primary centre for advocacy and health-promotion for the volunteer movement, receives money to deliver a program which may over the long run alter the very essence of volunteering, I worry about the erosion of our future independence and our capacity to advocate for change in the future.
For example, and this happens in other countries as well, including Canada, so don’t take this as a criticism of Australian trends specifically, when the criminal justice department of a state or national government uses community service as an alternative form of sentencing, I think we run a risk of, over time, shifting people’s concepts of what volunteering and community service are really about. To illustrate, if you say to an offender, “jail or community service, which punishment would you prefer today?” are we not colouring community service as a punitive measure rather than as the truly voluntary and richly rewarding opportunity it ought to be? When people who are unemployed or receiving other social benefits are “compelled to give back”, the service may be a good option for the receiver of benefits as well as the community service that receives his or her labour “for free”, but to suggest that this is volunteering may, I worry, lead to a new and potentially problematic social construction of the concept.
With respect, I would suggest that Australian governments, like those in other countries, have attached some strings to the relatively new attention they are paying to volunteering, and some of the programs and funding pots currently on offer may come back to bite us at a later point.
OzVPM: As risk management is one of your key specialty areas, I’m interested to know what observations were you able to make about how these issues are being dealt within Australia?
LG: Ah, well, this too is an interesting matter in Australia. As I noted previously, volunteering at the ground level, is very similar among the four countries I have referenced. What I mean is that if you were to walk into a hospital in any of these four countries, you would find volunteers doing essentially the same kind of work. Girl Guides/Scouts exist in all four countries and volunteer Guiders in each are doing essentially the same work with youth. Disease oriented groups such as cancer societies, institutes for/of the blind, and so on engage huge numbers of volunteers in similar work, delivering services and raising funds for research. Volunteer firefighters and rescue workers risk their lives in crisis response work every day in all four countries. Observe volunteers working in any of these countries and most of the time you’d be hard pressed to distinguish where the work is actually taking place.
However, how we think about the risks related to volunteer work, and the extent to which we need to account for liabilities that can attach to the work of volunteers does vary. This question could, on its own, be substance for a stand alone article, so I will be brief in my comment here. What is most interesting to me in this regard is the impact of your volunteer protection legislation on the capacity of non-profit organizations to engage volunteers. Perhaps as an illustration of that “be careful what you ask for” notion, the attempt to extend protection against liability to individual volunteers has had at least two unexpected consequences.
The first is that the focus on liability has largely drawn attention from where, in my opinion, it really ought to be focussed which, simply stated, is on keeping the darned hazards and perils from materializing in the first place. We are so fearful of, and over attentive to, potential law suits, that we are not devoting sufficient attention to risk management. The knee jerk reaction is to run off seeking insurance. In this narrow response we fail to recognize that insurance is the financial band-aid we apply after the harm has taken place. We miss the critical point that if we spent half as much time and resources on preventing the harm in the first place, we’d need a whole lot less insurance, and people wouldn’t have gotten hurt or suffered losses in the interim!
This over concentration on liability and its associated inattention to prevention through risk management is not uniquely Australian. It finds a parallel in the United States, and to a lesser (but, unfortunately growing) extent in Canada, and most recently, now in the United Kingdom.
The second unintended consequence of the volunteer protection legislation, as near as I can tell, is that insurance companies are reaping riches from the relatively poor and struggling non-profit sector. Not only is far too little being done to keep people safe, but important events and services are being curtailed or cancelled because of the prohibitive and apparently ever-escalating insurance costs. I have even heard anecdotes of agencies that have been driven out of business because their insurance rates have doubled and doubled again and doubled again. And, again, as near as I can tell, insurance rates have gone up not because of huge numbers of claims, but rather as a result of the (largely misplaced?) fear of potential claims. It’s a false economy as near as I can tell, and the non-profit sector and its clients suffer the consequences.
OzVPM: So do you have any suggestions for a solution?
LG: The solution? Tough question. I’d offer only a couple of thoughts on this.
First, advocacy. Peak bodies for volunteering and the non-profit sector (and these, I think are different bodies but clear allies on this matter) need to scream long and loud about the negative consequences of the legislation and the need to act immediately to remedy the situation.
Second, research. Someone at state and/or national levels needs to launch an empirical inquiry into the number of actual suits, their final results, and their actual costs in payouts. This data then needs to be compared against escalating insurance premiums. If the payouts have become huge, then legislative capping may be in order. If it is a false economy driven by fear and gouging, then regulations may need to be levied on the insurance industry, and/or the non-profit sector might consider cessation of business with the insurance industry altogether and pursue non-profit sector pools and self insurance schemes such as those that are beginning to spring up elsewhere.
OzVPM: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to share?
LG: The more I work in other countries, the more parallels I see. At the big picture level, what I observe is that we are all dealing with quite similar issues but we are at various points along the range of continua of how each issue evolves and plays out. The lesson is that there is a vast potential to learn from one another about how advocates and peak bodies for volunteering might act and respond to bring about desired outcomes, and prevent the pitfalls experienced elsewhere. Technology makes global communication possible and we need to be really careful not to reinvent wheels where communication among us could bring about more desirable results faster, and at a lower cost in terms of both resources and anguish.
Maybe it’s a reflection of my so many years in the field that sharpens my awareness of repeating issues. Or perhaps it is my sense of increasing impatience at the lack of strategic vision and political will within our movement (as I said to Susan Ellis ten years ago, so many in this field continue to act like Lady Bountifuls with white gloves on!). Whatever the source, I am more and more focussing my own interests in areas where advocacy and activism are needed.
So my final comments are of that nature:
Let us all support the efforts of national and state/provincial peak bodies for volunteerism (not for the voluntary sector, but for volunteerism specifically) from Australia, NZ, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom to continue to work together on an activist agenda. While one meeting of this nature has already taken place, we all in the movement need to support and encourage our state and national advocates to think big and act on behalf of the movement. I believe that only when these pivotal representatives roll up their sleeves together, identify common concerns, share stories of successes and failures to date, and build a unified, strategic, and political agenda around shared concerns will anything really change in volunteering.
The second front for action is with senior agency executives and funders. We in volunteering have spent many years and expended great effort to advance the professionalism and the profession of volunteer program management. Peak bodies (and local associations of managers of volunteers) have invested hugely in training managers of volunteers to be better at what they do. The problem is that we have been ignoring the folks who really need to be convinced of the value of volunteering, and these are the very people who are in a position to effect change in how volunteering and its management play out in real time: funders, agency managers, and boards. I threw this same challenge a year and a half ago to Volunteer Canada at a national institute here and I will repeat it to peak bodies elsewhere as well: if we all over the next five years spent as much effort communicating to funders, agency managers and boards about the value of volunteering and the infrastructure volunteering needs to be effective as we have spent in the last five years trying to upgrade the skills of volunteer program managers, we would generate more change in the next five years than we have seen in volunteerism in the last 25 years.
The communication campaign needs to be planned, strategic and coordinated. It needs to be effectively lead by peak bodies and would accomplish so much more if it were at a multi-national level. We are good at complaining and whining in our field. I am hoping that we can get beyond the “poor us” mentality and move together towards a more healthy, more vigorous, and appropriately recognized and resourced volunteer movement in the near future.
OzVPM: Now it’s your turn!
Do you think Linda’s musings are accurate?
Take some time to share your thoughts on Linda’s observations on the Australian volunteerism sector or if you were lucky enough to have caught one of Linda or Anna’s Australian workshops why not share your seminar experience with other site visitors?