OzVPM HOT TOPIC – APRIL 2005
By OzVPM Director Andy Fryar with Steve McCurley
This month we have decided to present another of our occassional interviews with prominent volunteerism leaders from around the world. Steve McCurley visited Australia for the first time in November 2004, so we thought we would chase him down to share his thoughts about his visit and volunteerism in this country
SM: I was in Australia for three weeks, quite a long time to be working away from home, and during the main part of it I either worked or traveled or worked and traveled on 14 out of 15 weekdays. And during most of it I had an obnoxious cold that resulted in my voice almost disappearing.
So basically I had an amazingly enjoyable experience and I’ll come back instantly if anyone even suggests I’d be welcome.
Highlights for me were:
. The incredibly nice and cheerful people . At one point I realized that literally Everyone I had met – workshop participants, airline staff, people I bumped into on the street – was unbelievably polite, friendly, helpful and happy. Clearly there’s something in the water – the level of civility and politeness is way above the global norm.
. The scenery . Australia has great livable cities, with a mix of old and new architecture, and the best selection of city parks and recreational spaces in the world. Compared to most large cities, everything is clean and well-maintained, and most of it still has a sense of personality that is often lost in other countries.
And I won’t go into the wine and food, except to append the following photo of the visit to Two Hands winery in the Barossa that Andy was kind enough to organize:
OzVPM: What were your general impressions of the Australian volunteerism scene?
SM: Australia – as I’ve mentioned elsewhere – is dangerously close to being a model in volunteerism for the rest of the world. It’s got a great mix of:
. Size – large enough to have a good range of different types of volunteer programs and volunteer environments, as well as a considerable history of volunteer involvement and a sizable proportion of the population actively involved
. Diversity – wide variation of program types: government and charitable, urban/rural, highly structured versus loose all-volunteer settings
. Imagination – ability to try anything to see if it works, including new technology, new ways of doing volunteer management, etc.
I find myself frequently referring people to Australian resources and programs as I’m asked for examples of interesting approaches.And volunteer program managers bring to volunteering the same enthusiasm that Australians seem to bring to everything in their lives, and this might be the most critical element for success.
OzVPM: How does the Australian scene vary from other places you have visited?
SM: Visiting Australia further convinced me that the volunteering environments in the UK, US, Canada and Australia are remarkably alike. This is probably caused by somewhat similar cultural histories, but even more – in my opinion – by the fact that we have evolved relatively congruent systems of social service provision; we all have both a tradition of small, grassroots neighborhood volunteering which has developed some varieties of volunteer efforts and a growing tradition of highly organized and structured charitable service organizations and government programs that involve large numbers of volunteers.
So, similarities strike me more than differences, especially with regard to the challenges we are facing, with the major ones being:
. Coping with the “professionalization” of volunteering, particularly in areas such as EMS and firefighting, where the training requirements are making it questionable whether these activities can continue to be done on a volunteer basis.
. Finding reasonable solutions to the perceived liability and insurance crises that don’t result in destroying the spirit of volunteering in a quest to solve what appear in fact to be relatively infrequent lawsuits
. Developing an organized system for making it easy for new volunteers to become involved and then finding ways for them to “grow” into higher and deeper levels of participation. I think the real crisis for volunteering in the next two decades will be convincing volunteers to accept the burdens and responsibilities of being leaders, not just casual helpers. The sports volunteering community will be especially interesting to watch.
What is most encouraging in all the countries is the high general level of support from all societal institutions – media, government, education – for the concept and practice of volunteering.
OzVPM: Are there specific areas that you think require more development?
SM: Two that come to mind:
. Training of volunteer program managers.
Australia, like the rest of the world, tends to have volunteer program managers who begin their positions with relatively little formal training and relies on those people to very creatively figure out how to run a program under rapidly changing societal conditions and a very small budget. The good news is that we actually know a lot about good volunteer management practices and most experienced program managers are willing to share everything they’ve learned with others – the trick is getting the information to the new practitioner, especially those from the smallest organizations with the most limited training budgets.
. Involvement of volunteers in government programs.
Two of the most interesting conversations I had in Australia were with government representatives in Brisbane and Canberra who were trying to think through how volunteers could be involved in and supported by government initiatives. I was impressed with the thought and concern they had for this complicated issue, which is nice to compare with the government approach in the US of “blunder first, correct course later.” Government has an immense amount to offer to volunteerism, both in direct involvement of volunteers and in providing support for the infrastructure that supports volunteerism, and I hope Australian governments continue the policies of the last decade which have done both of these.
OzVPM: Any other thoughts you’d like to share?
SM: Only thing I missed in Australia was not having the opportunity to get outside the large cities and see how things are done in the more rural areas where volunteering is a bit more difficult to arrange because of the smaller population base and the wider geographic area.
And if any of you are ever in the Pacific Northwest, let me know and I’ll return the hospitality and show you the only other comparable wine region in the world.
OzVPM: Thanks Steve. We will certainly be arranging a return visit at some point in the near future.
If any reader had the chance to hear any of Steve’s workshops while he was in our country, why not share your thoughts of the experience below