Volunteer management and activism – a new partnership?

Andy Fryar September 1, 2006 9
Volunteer management and activism – a new partnership?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

“Let him that would move the world, first move himself.” (Socrates)

Most of what I write in this column each month relates directly to the field of volunteer program management. More specifically I frequently tend to focus on offering challenges about ways we can think differently about what it is that we do, espouse ruminations to help us better appreciate the role we have in our agencies and try and stress the influence that I believe we hold, both individually and collectively, in our broader communities.

All these ideas are great in their own right and certainly have lots of merit; they encourage us to continue to grow our thinking in ways that can help our profession to develop and evolve. They also form the basis for ongoing debate, discussion and dialogue throughout the sector.

As many of you would be aware, I’ve just finished co-leading the 2nd Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management in Brisbane * , which unlike most conventional conferences seeks, from the outset, to have clear actions associated with the outcome of the event. It is not simply a ‘talkfest’ and it is more than just an opportunity to escape from the piles of paperwork and pressures of running a successful volunteer program for a few days. It is instead an opportunity for delegates to make consolidated change, both individually and collectively, to the field of volunteer management in Australia, New Zealand – and maybe even further abroad.

The true relevance of this hit me when I was recently sent a copy of Joy Noble and Fiona Verity’s new book called “Imagine if.” – a handbook for volunteer activists**. As a general rule, activists don’t appear to consider themselves to be volunteers – or often even a part of the voluntary sector – rather they see themselves as simply being ‘activists’ – people with a passion who aim to get things done.

Dictionary.com defines activism as ” the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals”. I really love the use of the word ‘vigorous’ in this definition, as I believe (and I have gone on record as saying this before***) , that we all too often miss out on making real change, due to the fact that we often become victims of our own need to be perennially ‘nice’.

This thought caused me to think about the fact that while there are plenty of good reasons for organisations like OzVPM to continue to stimulate debate about the development of volunteerism, there is an even bigger incentive for us to all be ‘doing’ something to make that happen.

As it eventuated, this actually became a theme throughout the retreat – firstly in the fact that as a profession we need to be re-evaluating the place in the landscape where our profession has evolved to, and secondly in considering better ways to develop methods to promote the place that volunteering – and as a consequence volunteer program management – actually hold in our society.

In fact there was a great example just recently in the UK of the volunteerism sector banding together to fight an injustice within its ranks. As I understand it, the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) had made a new ruling, departing from a long standing tradition that stated that volunteers on government benefits would need to foot the cost of their own lunch expenses – whereas volunteers who were salaried would be able to claim a refund for theirs. The result was volunteer involving organisations and VPM practitioners across the UK pulled together and mounted an ‘in-your-face’ campaign protesting the injustice – with the pleasing result that the DWP did an ‘about face’ on its position.

So here’s the deal – I think it is high time we learnt a lesson from our activist cousins and became more like them! If volunteer program management is to gain in its recognition as a profession, then we need to be the ones who are vigorously promoting that cause – both as individuals and as a collective.

To help you think through what this might involve, let me suggest the following:

  • Let’s place a standing item on the agenda of every volunteer managers network meeting which discusses the actions the group members, and the network as a whole, have made to promote our cause
  • Like all good activists, let’s actively plan ways that we can demonstrate our cause and raise public awareness to those we need to be targeting
  • Let’s encourage volunteer centres the world over to go beyond seeing volunteer managers as simply a source of training revenue, but rather to join the cause and better help us to promote the role of volunteer program managers within the volunteering landscape
  • Stop making excuses for not joining professional VPM Association’s such as AAVA in Australasia, MOVE in Singapore , CAVR in Canada , SAVM in Scotland or AVM in the UK . There is strength in numbers.
  • Remember that activism works on an individual basis too – real change starts with your agency
  • Promote International Volunteer Managers Appreciation Day on November 1, and look for ways to educate others as a part of celebrating our great profession
  • More advanced VPM’s must understand that a basic tenet of being considered ‘advanced’ should be to become more active in fighting the injustices associated with the fact that VPMs are not as well recognised as some of our aligned HR cousins
  • Dare to speak up .even if it means you might get your head lopped off from time to time!
  • Support and encourage one another

As you can see this is a call to action, and there are many ways that we can all become more actively involved in forging change for volunteer program management – to ensure that we receive due acknowledgement for the work it is that we do.

Let me leave this month’s hot topic with a quote from Auschwitz survivor Elie Weisel who said, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Maybe now is our time to protest!

Why not share your thoughts on this topic – or your ideas about how we can all become more active and mobilised

* See www.vpmretreat.com.au

** We hope to have Joy and Fiona’s new publication available through the OzVPM Bookstore soon.

*** See http://www.ozvpm.com/pasthottopics/march04.php


  1. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Response posted on 12th September 2006 by Nettie Hulme, Manager, Barwon Health Volunteer Services Department, Geelong Victoria , Australia

    Yes! I sign up for the Asutralian National Network of Health Sector VPM

    I think being sector focussed will be helpful in galvanising some action ‘united be stand divided we fall’…………….

    Looking forward to our first (virtual?) meeting

    in peace

  2. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Response posted on 9th September 2006 by Barbara Zeller, Manager Volunteer Resources, Doncaster, Victoria, Australia

    I have goose bumps on my arms from reading your ‘ACTIVISM’ topic this month. I too was at the conference in Brisbane and excited by the prospect of moving to action.

    It reminds me of the days of my youth where I was involved in protests about all sorts of injustices in the world. I must admit the last rally I attended was for Aboriginal Rights and that was a while ago. My activism is quieter these days and more workplace focused. So maybe it is time to reignite those fires I felt as a younger person

    I was bouncing around in my car today to a song on the radio with these words …….. “I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair, in ’77 and ’69 their was revolution in the air”

    Ahhhhhhhh those were the days

    The word activist has bite and inspiration and leads me towards the belief that I would be involved with people who want to keep moving forward. This I like . Thanks for the opportunity to be involved with people from a broad range of professions and also for the information from OzVpm about world issues and networks.

  3. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Response posted on 8th September 2006 by Anne M. Franzi-Ford, JP, Co-ordinator of Volunteer Services St. Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne, Australia

    Great idea re National Network for VPM’s in Health – we currently have in Melbourne a network group for VPM’s in health, try and meet bi-monthly and also some who are unable to attend because of distance I keep in touch with by email. So, yes I put my hand up with yours and again great idea

  4. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Response posted on 8th September 2006 by Susan Chaffey, Coordinator of Volunteers, Trinder Park Community of Care, Logan, Queensland, Australia

    Agree entirely with the Hot Topic. For to long we have been talking about the issues rather than taking action. Think outside the square, tell everyone whether they are involved in the community sector or not. I am with you Ben. Building strong networks can only strenghten our profession and give us a voice. I am keen to re-establish the Aged Care Network in Logan, anyone interest can contact me on chaffey.susan@qld.lca.org.au

  5. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Response posted on 8th September 2006 by Adaire Palmer, SA Fire and Emergency Services Commission, Volunteer Management Branch & Vice President, AAVA, Adelaide, South Australia

    I’ve just nominated our ‘Working In Harmony Program’ for the Commissioner’s Awards in HR Achievement, the first time ever that a volunteer program has been nominated for an HR award in the public service in SA. As Andy says, “…and secondly in considering better ways to develop methods to promote the place that volunteering – and as a consequence volunteer program management – actually hold in our society.”

    The program would not exist without good program and resource management. I’d like to have our programs having as much ‘punch’ as mainstream HR ones, which does mean that we do have to blow our bags and get in their faces, whether it is for funding, recognition or equality. I can be contacted on 08 8463 4101 if you’d like to learn more about our nomination.

  6. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:01 am - Reply

    Response posted on 6th September 2006 by Nettie Hulme, Manager, Barwon Health Volunteer Services Department, Geelong Victoria , Australia

    Are we a sector really?

    Personally I didn’t come away from the Retreat with any sense of a being part of a sector with a cohesive raison d’etre or modus operandi

    Some definitions from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/sector

    sector – a body of people who form part of society or economy; “the public sector”
    body – a group of persons associated by some common tie or occupation and regarded as an entity; “the whole body filed out of the auditorium”
    society – an extended social group having a distinctive cultural and economic organization
    business sector, business – business concerns collectively; “Government and business could not agree”

    For me one of the reasons it is difficult to enagage on any discussion above the pure ‘mechanical’ level of volunteer management processes is:

    Firstly, that the concept of ‘volunteering’ encompasses such a broad gamut and this is even broadening wider still with the inclusion of Centrelink directed options so that sometimes I feel that we are not all speaking about the same concept

    Secondly, that the volunteering spirit in Australia appears to be in danger of being co-opted for corporate gain (i.e. making the corporate ‘sector’ appear to be compassionate and caring on one hand while they rape and pillage the land in third world countries, or exploit paid labour with the other hand e.g. Rio Tinto who were invited to speak at the VA conference) and to my mind this is a further diminishment of the concept of volunteering

    Thirdly, the broad and disparate motivation, professional background and experience of people working in volunteer program management and co-ordination means that we are dealing with sectors within sectors and having one discussion

    This all leads to a lack of clarity of what and for whom is the clarion call to action being touted by Andy in his latest hot topics?

    I think there are a lot of assumptions made that VPMs have congruent agendas, ideologies, motivations and ambitions when clearly we don’t

  7. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:00 am - Reply

    Response posted on 6th September 2006 by Jess Reed, Coordinator Volunteer Support (Mentoring) Program, Inala, Queensland, Australia
    I’m really glad that activism is this month’s Hot Topic as it coincides beautifully with what is going on with my program (the VSMP) right now. We’ve been doing excellent work for years now (funded for a full time Coordinator for 2 years now; previously it was unfunded), and our volunteer mentors have achieved some wonderful outcomes with their mentees.

    Basically. we have a group of 30 or so adult volunteers who mentor young people in care. They’re matched one-on-one, usually do outings and recreational activities, and work on building trusting, positive relationships, being good role models, advocating for the young person, working on self esteem and life skills, etc, etc.

    Our Manager wrote a research paper based on our evaluations (by kids, carers and vols) and presented this at an international conference in 2004. This was based on our small pilot program. The program has since blossomed and developed, and our regular evaluations show very real improvements in the young people’s self esteem, life skills and social skills. They draw pictures, write and talk about how they feel about their mentors and the difference it has made.and yet. all of our requests for more funding have been denied!

    At the moment we have 26 active volunteers (several of our long standing volunteers have moved overseas in the past few months) and 8 new volunteers who are about to commence placements. That brings us back to our capacity of 35 volunteers per Coordinator. We have 21 active requests for volunteers (and yes, 8 volunteers to fill them) and each and every young person on that list deserves a mentor and the one-on-one attention they provide. Our requests for funding for another Coordinator have been denied, our requests for funding for new sites (in other areas) have been denied. our suggestion of fee-for-service was ignored. this is ridiculous! We have a number of organisations who have worked with us to put in funding requests to establish a VSMP in their area, and these too have been denied. I’ve been here as Coordinator for 3 or 4 years now, so am quite used to it, but the confusion on our new volunteers faced called me to action! Many have said: “It’s just ridiculous that this is limited to Inala – why is there not branches across Queensland ?”, “Don’t all kids in care have a right to this?”. Hear, hear!

    So. long story short, it’s time for me to become an “activist” for my program. It’s no longer good enough to do fundraising to “top up” costs or to put on activities – we need solid funding to expand.

    I’ve spoken with our Manager and will be forming a committee of volunteers. We are already getting recognition – we won the Child Protection Week Award for a Volunteer Program in 2005, we held a fantastic Seminar and has guest speakers supporting the program (the Min. for Child Safety, speakers from CREATE, Vol QLD, Griffith Uni, child protection agencies).

    We’ve already got our success stories in the media – I have a semi-regular column in the local paper, we do profiles of our

    vols in all the local papers, our Xmas appeal has been on EXTRA, we use the local radio stations.

    But. so far we’ve focused on our success, on drumming up support. We’ve now realised that our funders (Dept of Child Safety) are happy to applaud us and give us awards. That’s not enough! So, we’re going to use the media to try and gain funding – have a deliberate voice saying “why is this program not being adequately funded?”, “why is the overwhelming need not being met?” We’re asking all of our volunteers, foster carers, Dept ChS Child Safety Officers, Comm. for Children Community Visitors, VPMs, members of the public and partner orgs to write letters of support. We’re going to get a petition going, and we’re going to present it to the Premier.

    If anyone has any ideas PLEASE let me know – we’re conscious that we can’t bite the hand that feeds, but it’s not tenable to continue doing such fantastic work with such a small group, and to continue turning away the majority of requests.

  8. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 10:00 am - Reply

    Response posted on 6th September 2006 by Andy Fryar, Director and Founder, OzVPM, Adelaide, Australia

    Ben – I am in and OzVPM will do whatever we can to help you make this a reality!

  9. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:59 am - Reply

    Response posted on 6th September 2006 by Ben Temby-Nicols, Manager of Volunteer Services, Mater Hospital, Brisbane, Australia

    Loved your topic Andy!

    I think if we want more professional recognition for our work as Volunteer Managers/Coordinators (or whatever term you want to use) then action is required. There does need to be a group with the passion to drive this forward. There are issues that need to be placed on the table so that there is a more unified, professional, supported approach to volunteer management (through all sectors).

    Imagine if other professions did not have a body that guided their practices? I think there needs to be more activity in gaining recognition and support (from the government level to the workplace) for volunteer programs and those employed to deliver them.

    The question is, who will lead?

    I think the reality for most Volunteer Managers/Coordinators is that they have no ‘real’ power in their workplace. Their role is seen as ‘soft’ – it’s nice to have, it looks good but really it’s not essential. In this day and age with the recent workplace reforms, most people will not speak out to any great degree for fear of losing their job. Whether this is a real or perceived danger I’m not sure but the threat is enough for some to back away from sticking their necks out. It’s a sense of not wanting to rock the boat.

    So, who has the courage, support base, passion, time, knowledge, network of contacts etc to drive this forward?
    I volunteer!

    My first action will be a call-out to all those who attended the 2nd Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management in Brisbane. I would like to know how many of you from the Health sector would like to join me in establishing a National Network for VPM’s working in health. Everyone says there is strength in numbers so let’s put that to the test.

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