Is it time to re-define volunteering?

Andy Fryar April 15, 2015 2
Is it time to re-define volunteering?

This month’s Hot Topic is a re-working of an article I first wrote a decade ago. I’ve revisited this topic after being invited to provide an online thought piece to raise debate as the Volunteering Australia network continue to discuss a re-definition of volunteering.


When I originally wrote this hot topic back in July 2005, I began by writing about a fairly new volunteer program that had emerged out of the USA. It was innovative, creative and most importantly – it was effective.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

“I recently came across a very interesting and ‘out of the box’ concept called the ‘10,000 Hours Show’, ( that I really liked on a number of levels – but which challenged me in many other ways. It’s basically a ‘concert with a catch’.

The ‘concert’ part of the equation is straight forward. An organising committee host a major rock concert in the US state of Iowa each year with major headlining bands such as Ben Folds and Guster.

The ‘catch’ is that you can’t buy tickets! Rather, tickets can only be gained by contributing at least 10 hours of volunteer work to a local volunteer agency.”


In the ensuing decade, the 10,000 Hours Show has gone from strength to strength and is now hosted on university campuses right across the USA. The concept also popped up in the UK as ‘RockCorp’, which in 2013 found its way to Australia. See

The reason I wrote about this at that time was that it sat very distinctly outside most accepted definitions of that day.

Sadly, a decade later, while volunteering has continued to morph and change in so many ways, our formally accepted definitions of volunteering have largely gathered dust!

A redefinition of volunteering?

One of the things I particularly like about the ‘10,000 Hours Show’ is the way it pushes the boundaries in encouraging and attracting new recruits to volunteer in local community activities.

I think I’ve said before that I am not a great fan of any existing definition of volunteering.

For me, they always end up being prohibitive in one aspect or another.

Now before I get lynched, let me make it clear that I do think we should try and define some broad boundaries in which volunteering can and should operate.

However, my frustration stems from the fact that volunteering bodies the world-over, continue to adopt hard and fast definitions that then become ‘gospel’ for the following decade or more.

To that end, I am a big advocate that we agree on a definition that is as ‘inclusive’ of as many forms of volunteering as possible; as opposed to current popular thinking which tends to be very ‘exclusive’.

For instance, according to the current Volunteering Australia (VA) definition and principles of formal volunteering:

  • Those who give their time freely within private institutions such as independent hospitals and hospices are not volunteers
  • This extends to those who assist in many major sporting events that are structured as ‘for profit’ organisations. My understanding is that the recent ICC Cricket World Cup fits into this category
  • Those who put their health on the line to assist with medical testing are excluded

And above all it is just plain confusing – because all of the above examples DO ACTUALLY utilise the support of community members that are readily referred to and acknowledged as volunteers!

It’s a bit like saying that the only cars that we choose to recognise as being a ‘real car’ are Volvos, BWW’s and Mercedes.

It also creates more questions that it answers.

For instance:

  • The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a ‘not for profit’ agency and so technically fits easily within the current VA definition. But this organisation generated many billions of dollars of profit in the last four years, and it is well documented that committee members and others involved in the IOC live the life of ‘Reilly’. Volunteers support this profitable outcome. But this is OK?
  • Where do current definitions leave activists and those who voluntarily advocate for social change off their own back – and not through any sort of agency or ‘official’ coordinated effort?
  • What about those who technically break the law as volunteers (but for community good) – ‘Anonymous’ being one such group.
  • With ANZAC day coming up,let me raise the question of our WWI diggers. Most of them volunteered to fight for their country (that is they were not conscripted). We take great delight in knowing this. But of course once they were accepted, they were paid. Where does this fit?

And while we are debating this, how do we define exactly what ‘for community benefit’ means?

Let me illustrate this via a couple of (pretty extreme) examples:

  • Let’s pretend that I volunteer to assist a pro-abortion clinic. It’s a non-profit and I get paid nothing, but would the anti-abortion lobby consider my actions of community benefit (and vice versa)?
  • What about this heading from the Adelaide Advertiser from way back in April 2003 “HIT SQUAD: Saddam’s volunteer suicide hit squad”. Assuming for one minute that the pro-suicide bombing community believe that blowing up infidels is of community benefit, then this meets all of the standards as currently defined by VA, at least for a small portion of society (*)

Now please don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating for a single minute that terrorism is something I am even remotely comfortable in defining as volunteering – but in using these extreme examples, it does help to illustrate the complexity of perspectives and the broad range of what society considers to be voluntary activity.

The reality is that volunteerism is moving and changing at a pace much faster than we are reviewing the way that we define it. In brief, I wonder if we are being held back from truly recognising the potential of new forms of volunteer involvement simply by sticking rigidly to what many see as antiquated definitions?

Imagine if we still defined the role of women in society in the same way we did in the 1950’s. Consider the ramifications if we had never debated and redefined laws on divorce, child abuse, the welfare system or the treatment of our indigenous populations?

Think about how we now understand and define environmental issues today compared with just a few decades ago. We understand now that the way we treat our environment is how our environment, in the long term, will treat us in return. And accordingly we have had to re-define many aspects of this.

My point is that volunteerism, like everything else, is evolutionary, and I wonder if we have the ability, strength of character and courage to challenge ourselves and the ‘powers that be’ to continue to change with the times.

There is another reason I feel strongly about this topic, and that is because I believe that in many ways this lack of ‘breadth’ in our definition of volunteering may directly impact the way that those working with volunteers are viewed.

The profession of volunteer management continues to struggle to gain any real progress in the way that it is viewed organisationally or more broadly via government departments and funders.

When you get to the heart of this, more often than not it is because those making the decisions and holding the purse strings, often also have antiquated and limited understandings of who a volunteer is. Maybe, by broadening the adopted definition, we will be able to advocate more broadly for suitable volunteer management systems and apply for different funding opportunities to support those who contribute back to their communities.

Of course having served myself as President of Volunteering Australia (about 100 years ago now!), I do understand the rationale behind all of these arguments and I am in some ways playing the devil’s advocate, but I truly do believe this is an important continuing debate that needs to occur.

We need to challenge convention and think outside the square – there is no room inside a box.

Most of all, we need to remember that the way volunteering will be defined and valued in the future, begins with all of us today!

Would love to hear your thoughts


(*) Further reading: You may also be interested in an article I wrote for e-volunteerism on this topic. Titled ‘Volunterrorism’ it can be found at –







  1. Donna Lockhart May 27, 2015 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    Great timing to have this conversation. We do need to broaden our understanding and definition and share with others. I see Baby Boomers being turned away from volunteering because they no longer want to support or enhance staff roles. In so many cases they have greater skills and more experience than staff. Staff are fearful and therefore blind to what great community work these highly skilled volunteers are prepared to do. The definition needs review because the needs and wants of volunteers/new profiles have changed. Volunteers had skills in the past but organizations had meaningless roles. Volunteers no longer want these roles because they want to use their skills. We will continue to lose volunteers if roles continue to be unsuitable. Let’s get creative and continue to craft a ‘continuum of volunteering’ ideas not based on an outdated definition.

  2. Jessaca April 28, 2015 at 9:09 pm - Reply

    I love this article. I have been volunteering since 2011. I’ve volunteered for over 10 organizations. I have some good and not so good experiences. My vision is to change the way we volunteer so that it is beneficial for all parties involved.

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