HOT TOPIC – JULY 2008
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
I spent last Friday at a very exciting conference.
Titled, “Making a Difference: Social inclusion for new and emerging communities” the conference program was jammed packed full of speakers talking on a range of topics relating to the advancement of social inclusion and the integration of new populations, including asylum seekers.
It was genuinely a great day and I learned a lot about the many wonderful initiatives being developed to assist new arrivals in learning English, starting life in a new country and finding employment in a foreign environment.
Now in all of this discussion about new and existing government initiatives, community mobilisation and social inclusion, guess how many times the term ‘volunteer’ was uttered throughout the day? Only three …and one of those instances was when the conference convenor was thanking her own team for their help at the end of the day!
Like you, I know first hand that without the dedicated effort of volunteers that the successfully integration of new Australians would be in disarray. I had the pleasure about a year ago to visit a tutoring program involving the Melbourne Sudanese community and was astounded at the way in which volunteers from all walks of life were patiently assisting children, teens and adults to learn English and get ahead. In fact, these volunteers were doing exactly what the conference title suggested and “making a difference” .
So why was there so little mention of ‘volunteers’ throughout the day of the conference I attended?
Well in actual fact they were not forgotten at all. Volunteers were discussed right throughout the day but by an array of differing titles.
Consider the following terminology I heard mentioned at the conference:
• Committee members
• Community policing
• Community support
• ESL tutors
• NGO support
• Support workers
• The work of non-profits
• Youth participation
Implicit within each of these terms is the valuable work of volunteers, and beyond that, a leader of volunteers will in most cases also be present, it was just that for those at the conference there seemed very little need to spell that out.
When considering terminology, we should also think about the often under representation of volunteers and volunteer leaders from the areas of recreation, sport, the environment and emergency services at mainstream events such as national volunteering conferences and advanced volunteer management training. Is this because they simply don’t want to attend, or do they see what they do as being something different to what mainstream volunteering has to offer?
Let’s look at just one aspect of this involvement – namely men as volunteers. Susan Ellis made the point some years ago that “men have always volunteered, they are just usually referred to as coaches, fire fighters, pro bono lawyers, scout leaders and so on”.
It is not that men don’t volunteer (here in Australia the ration of women to men is not far off a 50/50 split) they just label it differently. The same is true of other groups who contribute voluntary time – parent helpers in schools and teachers in Sunday school being just two that spring immediately to mind.
Now here’s the point of this hot topic, and the question I’d like to pose to each and every reader – does it matter that the work of volunteers is not titled volunteering?
From one perspective, and this is the reality, it is never going to happen – so perhaps it is a null and void argument to begin with. However, it does raise a number of interesting points of view that are worth exploring.
There are really two points of view which need to be considered.
The first of those argues that we should work a lot harder to ensure that the work of everyone acting in a voluntary capacity somehow gets ‘captured’ under the volunteering title. It surely stands to reason that if we are better able to gather these numbers together, the overall impact of volunteers will be better understood and volunteering as a whole will be better off – right?
Well here are a couple of key questions.
• Do you believe that a more unified understanding of volunteer work would automatically translate into outcomes such as greater funding & support of volunteer projects?
• What would be the desired outcome of such as wish (if not greater funding and support)?
For me, one of the reasons I get a little ‘miffed’ at people not properly understanding the scope of volunteerism, is because it is in some ways a hindrance to the advancement of volunteer management as a profession. But in the same way that volunteers are often pigeon holed, so too is the work of volunteer managers in many of those same fields
For instance, to pick up Susan Ellis’ example again, volunteer coaches are more likely to work under the guidance of someone with the title ‘sports coordinator’ rather than volunteer manager. Fire fighters may work under a Captain or team leader, parent class helpers under a teacher. All these people are leading volunteer effort and like their volunteers have probably never thought of themselves as a volunteer manager or part of the profession of volunteer management.
This brings me nicely to the second perspective we should discuss – and that is this. Perhaps those of us in the ‘mainstream’ volunteerism sector actually need to get better at finding ways to link in with others who are volunteers or who are leading volunteer effort without getting too precious about the terminology we use to describe what we are all doing. After all, if volunteering (by whatever name) is taking place and people are benefitting from it, surely that is the most important point.
It seems to me that our main strategy over the years has simply been to grumble about the low representation of these groups and do very little about it, but surely there must be other ways to educate about the sheer volume and scope of volunteer work in all it’s forms than simply forever trying to bundle it all up as ‘volunteering’. Because let’s face it, if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain perhaps it is time we went to Mohammed!
So here are some questions I’d love to hear your thoughts on:
• Firstly, do you agree with my sentiments or vehemently disagree? Why / Why not?
• Are there ways we can better communicate with the entire sector involving volunteers and encourage their participation in more greatly acknowledging volunteerism (ie not seeing what they do as being in a bubble from everyone else)
• Should groups like Volunteering Australia and the Australasian Association of Volunteer Management consider a name change to increase their relevance to a broader audience? Would it make a difference?
• What might be the impact of us doing this better?
Response posted on July 4, 2008 by Liz Scarfe, Manager, Volunteering Resources, Villa Maria, Victoria
Hi Andy – great topic!!
My brain immediately dives into the fundamentals of social structure and societal success parameters etc and the role of service in this.
For me, part of the spirit of volunteering is that it is done without coercion, which is probably not a contentious point. One of the ways I translate this in my own organization is that I don’t push our programs to utilize volunteers, I let them come to me.
I think the same spirit should be invoked when we consider the ‘volunteering sector’ – if you want to identify as part of this sector because you see benefit in doing so, great, but if you don’t, then don’t. I think we need to follow the signals from individuals and groups regarding inclusion – sometimes they will be signaling to be included, and sometimes not. We would just be pushing the proverbial up-hill if we try to act in the absence of these signals.
I like the idea of trying to make connections with those not already identifying as being part of the sector, but only in ways that directly supports their work (i.e. training for Sports Coaches in working with parent volunteers) not in ways that take their time from their main task i.e. by trying to get them involved in the bureaucracy of the sector (memberships in this that and the other, newsletters coming in from every angle etc). We don’t want to make contributing to your community too hard by making it an “industry” where participation is a one-size-fits-all model.
I also want to defend community volunteer activities being in “bubbles”, as you put it. There is so much rhetoric about being connected, networked, partnerships etc but all this takes a lot of time and resources, which can lead to the primary goal of groups being compromised. Localisation is not a bad thing.
I also don’t think a better capture of the ‘volunteering impact’ will necessarily lead to more funding/grants etc. I think it serves to validate the volunteer management profession however I don’t think the profession needs to be everywhere that volunteering happens. There are many amazing volunteering activities that happen perfectly well without volunteer managers and would in-fact be hampered by the introduction of formal management. I am not sure that it is the value of volunteers that is undervalued in our society, but the value of formalizing volunteering and the need for so much management of it that is in question. There are of course many volunteering environments where formal management is essential but I think we can get a bit carried away with thinking that all volunteering contexts must therefore need it.
So do I think it matters whether the work of volunteers is titled volunteering , no I don’t always. Sometimes it is important to label it so, and other times, it can just be people living their lives and contributing to their community. Long-live informal volunteering!!