HOT TOPIC – MARCH 2008
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
Over the past month, the Centre for Civil Society has launched an appeal through its regular newsletter to create a union for volunteers here in Australia. This is certainly not anything new and an old chestnut which has been raised before.
According to the article, a volunteer’s union is required because there is “ no national association or union of volunteers in Australia. There are plenty of funded councils on volunteering, but these represent organisations who use volunteers, not volunteers themselves.”
Let me begin by telling you why I think a national union of volunteers is not necessary.
Firstly there is a key inaccuracy in the above statement. It clearly suggests that ‘councils on volunteering’, which I assume refers to organisations like Volunteering Australia, state peak bodies and regional volunteer centres are only interested in representing the interests of volunteer involving organisations – and not volunteers themselves. Having been involved on volunteer centre Boards at all three levels over the years, I can assure you that the interests of volunteers are always paramount in the mission of those organisations acting as our peak and representative bodies.
The second reason I have difficulty with this concept is that it assumes volunteers are powerless – in fact quite the opposite is true. Volunteers are already a union movement by the very nature of the free choice they have. They vote with their feet everyday, and there are many glaring examples of traditional organisations struggling to attract new volunteer members because they have failed to properly advocate on behalf of their members (volunteers).
Thirdly, as with paid workers, I fail to understand how one body could ever be truly representative of all sectors representing volunteers. Some emergency service volunteer groups already have Associations who advocate on behalf of their volunteer members, and they do this well because the issues are very specific to the field of volunteering which they work in (volunteer fire fighting for example). How could one representative union group ever advocate on behalf of volunteers working in areas as diverse as hospices, the environment, disaster relief, education or a pet shelter? Like paid workers, the issues that confront volunteers are as different as chalk is from cheese.
Finally, if we truly understand the concept of sound volunteer management practices, volunteers who work in well supported volunteer involving organisations should already have a union representative looking after their interests! That person is commonly known as the Volunteer Coordinator or Volunteer Program Manager (VPM)! I say this because inherent in every volunteer management role should be the underlying function for a VPM to be the organisational representative who looks after the interests of it’s volunteer workforce – who ensures that injustices are not committed and that fair and reasonable ‘work’ conditions are applied to the work of volunteers.
So have we gone wrong?
Now while I may have outlined why, in an ideal world, such a volunteer’s union is unnecessary, the very fact that the call for such a group raises its head every few years does lead one to ask just where we may have gone wrong, or at the very least, what could we be doing better?
Canadian volunteerism commentator Linda Graff has for a number of years now been raising the issue of what she refers to as the ‘genetic engineering’ of the volunteer movement. Amongst other things, Linda argues that the established volunteer movement has over the years been sidetracked away from its core values – in pursuit of the funds required to keep its head above water.
Is there an argument to be answered that volunteer centres have lost sight of the need to advocate for volunteer issues? Is this increased when they are often in a position where to do so they may be ‘butting heads’ with the very government departments that fund them? Or have volunteer centres / peak bodies become such a slave to funding / service requirements that the core and rudimentary elements of advocating for the rights of volunteers has become merely a secondary issue?
These are certainly all good questions to debate and ponder.
The other issue I believe bears raising is the one I make above relating to the role of volunteer program managers in agencies that utilise volunteer support. Both VPMs and volunteer involving agencies need to take time to properly assess and understand the volunteer management role.
In far too many agencies, the Manager of Volunteers’ role is best understood (by management) simply as being someone who is able to ‘herd’ the volunteers together, keep them happy and have them jump through the hoops an agency requires of them! Instead, the VPM should be understood to be the volunteer management ‘expert’ in any agency, and be released accordingly to do everything they can to make volunteering experiences positive and rewarding ones for volunteers. The power in truly understanding this is that organisational management must be willing to hear what is wrong in their agencies and to make required changes accordingly.
Effective utilisation of volunteers lies in properly understanding that a volunteer workforce that is well equipped, have a voice and an investment in an agency’s mission will be the workforce who are most productive and loyal.
There is an opportunity here for a timely reminder of this fact. After all, if the VPM in your agency is not the person advocating for the rights of your volunteers – who will?
So do we need a union of volunteers? Absolutely not!
What we do need however is a timely reminder of some key and fundamental principles of what we are all about.
So let’s hear your thoughts:
• Do you think a union of volunteers is necessary? Why / Why Not?
• Do you agree with the points raised above?
• What other thoughts would you like to add to this debate?
Let’s hear your thoughts!