Can we turn the clock back just a little please?

Andy Fryar December 1, 2007 1
Can we turn the clock back just a little please?

HOT TOPIC – DECEMBER 2007

By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

I have had the privilege of wandering through Europe over the past month and have seen many amazing things along the way – age old architecture, iconic sites, priceless artefacts and cultures very different from my own.

Being Australian, I see things from my own perspective and more often than not, I find myself marvelling at those small day to day differences that others take for granted. The way a waiter finalises your account while you are still sitting at your table in Germany, the fact that you often pay a higher fee for sitting outside a Paris café on the pavement edge or the ease at which local people can find their way around the underground of their respective cities. These types of differences occur wherever you travel and help remind you that you are not at home.

This trip however, I was particularly interested to find myself in several cities which almost transported me back in time to an Australia of my childhood.

• Seeing people smoking openly in restaurants throughout Europe is not something I’ve witnessed for many years in Australia.

• Bicycle riders happily peddling through city streets with no helmet adorning their great noggins.

• Beer being sold in corner stores in full view of minors.

• Fireworks being set off on Guy Faulks night.

These are all things which we have legislated against in Australia or sanitised over recent years for the apparent safety of those of us living in this country.

So is Australia a safer place without these things or have we simply pandered to the voice of a vocal minority?

Well I am quite sure that statistics could be produced to show marked declines in the effects of passive smoking as well as the rates of head injury, firework accidents and youth drinking in Australian society as a direct result of these decisions, but I guess the bigger question is whether or not Australia is a better place because of it all? After witnessing all these things in Europe, I actually came away feeling that in Australia we are perhaps a little too sanitised and that we may have actually lost some of our freedoms and liberties, slowly and gradually over the years, under the guise of creating safer communities.

NOW what the heck does all this have to do with a hot topic on volunteer management I hear you ask?

Well as I pondered these things, I couldn’t help but to make some direct comparisons with the profession of volunteer program management.

This became particularly pronounced as I met with several people this trip who coordinate the efforts of volunteers in significant volunteer involving agencies, individuals who have been managing volunteers for many years, but who have never called it that – and who are quite unaware that volunteer management is something that others aspire to having a career in. They haven’t ‘studied it’ at University, are unaware of the myriad of guide books to ‘best practice’ and have little or no knowledge of professional Associations like AAVA (Australasian Association of Volunteer Administrators).

Effectively they coordinate the efforts of volunteers based on common sense principles and an innate understanding of what motivates people to want to help one other. It is volunteer management at its most grassroots level, the type we more commonly associate with the small community efforts of all volunteer groups – without the theory or rhetoric which can so easily bog us down in our day to day work.

Is this a risky management strategy? Sure it is. But there are risks involved in every aspect of life and the truth is that when we over compensate to minimise risk, more often than not the very nature of the activity changes to become something else.

Let’s go back to my earlier observations about bicycle riding in Paris. Not wearing helmets is a risk, no doubt about it. But having no helmet laws has also meant that the French have been able to develop and implement a low cost bicycle hire system throughout the city which allows users to simply pick up and drop off bikes from hundreds of bike stands around the streets of Paris. This in turn stops traffic congestion, avoids parking problems and is environmentally friendly. Ingenious!

Here’s another story. More than a decade ago, I remember a baby being taken from a South Australian hospital by a volunteer – a terrible story that luckily, in this case, had a happy ending. But how did the SA government of the day respond? By overcompensating of course! Not only did they insist that all new hospital based volunteers needed to be screened, they also requested that this be done retrospectively on every volunteer already working in the system – even little old ladies in hospital Auxiliaries who had been there for 50 years! While the latter stipulation was eventually dropped (after the protest of volunteer managers including myself), screening in hospitals in this country has become commonplace ever since.

OK let me get to the point.

Involving volunteers has many benefits. For our communities, our organisations, broader society and also for the volunteers we engage in those activities. Volunteering has also been with us forever, it is just that today we title it, pack guidelines around it and all too often have a tendency to operate from a ‘worse case’ scenario mentality. I’ve met many volunteer managers over the years that appear to have some sort of a robotic obedience to ‘the rules’, an apparently uncompromising set of volunteer management principles that can never be waivered from.

If my many years in this field have taught me anything, it is this. Just when you think you have seen everything – think again! There is NO one set of rules for all volunteer managers to work by because our programs serve such a broad and diverse set of consumers and needs in so many different settings that there is literally a limitless number of practices going on in our field.

Now, as one of those people who write the guide manuals to good volunteer involvement, let me assure you I am not suggesting we throw sensible precautions out the window as the safety of our volunteers and clients must always be a paramount consideration.

What I am wanting for us to consider is:

• Just how far can we go with wrapping volunteer involvement up in cotton wool?

• At what point do we become so prescriptive with our programs that we miss potentially great opportunities (like the bike riders of France), or worse still, become completely ineffective in meeting the needs that our organisations were established to fill in the first place?

• Is it too late to turn the clock back just a little?

Let’s hear what you think?

One Comment »

  1. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 5:54 am - Reply

    Response posted on December 10 by Elizabeth Kolaitis, Program Coordinator, GROW, Qld, Australia

    My observations over the years are that fear of litigation and safety issues have perhaps driven us to the opposite error and consequently stifled the spirit of volunteering. I do believe that guidelines to keep people working in a safe environment are indeed necessary; it is the letter of the law stuff that kills the spirit and spontaneity. Thank you for your article, it is good for us all to stop and reflect upon the issue and how we can contribute positively.

    We live in a society which does not value volunteer work as legitimate work, only paid work is valued. We perhaps are loosing sight of the huge personal and community benefits in volunteering. Every one needs purpose and progress – it is in fact a vital need for all human beings what ever their situation in life, we have a need to contribute to the world we live in. I believe it is important in our small individual ways to promote the value of volunteer work.

    In GROW friendship

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