Punch, Judy and volunteerism?

Andy Fryar September 1, 2003 3
Punch, Judy and volunteerism?


By OzVPM, Andy Fryar

Twelve months ago, while attending a conference in the United States, I was privileged to participate in a workshop conducted by Canadian volunteerism expert, consultant and author, Linda Graff.

Linda’s workshop on that day was titled ’emerging ethical dilemmas in volunteerism’, and we were encouraged to think seriously about the question of just who is ‘driving’ the volunteering agenda? Well a year later I am still pondering that question – and the more I take time to observe the latest trends and government initiatives here in Australia, the more I believe there is merit in Linda’s challenge.

More recently, Linda has written further on this topic in an essay titled ‘the genetic engineering of the volunteer movement’ , published in a new e-book titled ‘The Rants and Raves Anthology’

In this essay, Linda firstly explores the traditional and historical roots of volunteerism. She then takes time to examine how the volunteer movement has evolved into being an attractive proposition to government in meeting many of it’s social welfare and other responsibilities.

Allow me to take a few moments to walk you through Linda’s thoughts from an Australian perspective.

Volunteering has historically operated through a process where communities have simply responded to needs as they arise. These solutions have traditionally been spontaneous, innovative and generous. They were largely undefined and certainly not structured as we might understand the contemporary management of volunteer programs.

Then, not so long ago, issues like insurance, risk management and liability started to raise their ugly heads.

As a result, the volunteering community responded by formalising their structures a little more. Volunteer management positions started to become the norm and volunteer efforts became more of a coordinated effort rather than simply an ad-hoc response to needs.

Within this growth, the volunteer sector started to seek recognition further abroad. Funding was (and continues to be) poor to voluntary organisations, and so a concerted effort was made to gain the attention of both government and corporations into the value of volunteering.

Quite unwittingly, volunteering had in many ways become a ‘commodity’ for the first time.

After scratching around with piecemeal funding for decades, volunteering suddenly became the flavour of the month, as for the first time, government saw that there was real benefit in involving volunteering in their social action planning for work rehabilitation and training. The emergence of programs in Australia such as the Voluntary Work Initiative (VWI) and Mutual Obligations (MO) being just two of these.

More recently, the creation of compact documents has become all the rage while the emergence of ministerial portfolios and government departments dealing with volunteering, has further validated government interest in the volunteer movement.

Good you say – great even; at long last, the government at all levels is recognising the worth of the voluntary sector.

Now before you get too excited, let me pose a few pointed questions that explore this concept from an Australasian perspective:

  • Who is it that determines the direction of and criteria for established government funded volunteer/welfare programs such as the voluntary work initiative and      mutual obligations?
  • Who is it that ultimately dictates which participants can be involved in such programs?
  • Who is it that ultimately dictates how participants can be involved in such programs?
  • Are initiatives such as the development of legislation and compacts seen (more broadly) by the community as being partnership arrangements or as something government is doing for the voluntary sector?
  • Why is it that so much government funding to the volunteer sector is tied up specifically in directional outcomes of this nature? Why can’t more ‘core’ funding be      available for volunteer agencies to simply go about their business?
  • Is the increasing amount of ‘red tape’ associated with volunteer involvement conducive to productive community participation? From where has the need for this increased ‘paperwork’ come?
  • As more corporations look to the voluntary sector to appease their social conscience what are the conditions being imposed on volunteering in return  for corporate generosity?

So let me pose Linda’s question to all of you.

Do you believe that the volunteer sector is in control of its own destiny and development?
Do you believe that the volunteer sector are becoming ‘puppets’ in a show where short term political gain appears to be a far more important ingredient in decision making processes than values of community development and the growth of social capital?

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe that if you are paranoid enough and look hard enough, you can probably find a conspiracy under every rock, and I for one am certainly not suggesting a conspiracy is taking place.

What I am suggesting is that we need to be aware of the paths our funding ‘carrots’ may take us down – otherwise, before we know it, we are some place we never intended to be!

So let’s hear your thoughts on this topic.

  • Do you believe that volunteering ‘core values’ are being lost as other players enter the sector?
  • What examples have you seen that support or contradict the thoughts expressed in this hot topic?
  • What ideas do you have for ways we can ensure our values are not compromised?

* The Rants and Raves Anthology ‘- is a new e-book available for download via the OzVPM bookstore web site.

I’d like to extend my thanks to Linda Graff for her inspiration of and assistance in preparing this month’s Hot Topic.

Linda’s own web site can be found at http://www.lindagraff.ca/


  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    Submitted on September 10, 2003 by Glynis Szafraniec, Coordinator, Volunteering Illawarra, Australia

    This does seem a good time to raise the issue of who controls the
    volunteering agenda as a hot topic. As someone who has been involved in
    “formalised” volunteering since the 1980’s through working in volunteer
    resource centres, I also have concerns about the gradual colonisation of
    volunteering by external bodies who are eager to capitalise on the feelgood
    factor of volunteering. It seems many are happy for volunteers to deliver
    vital services, but do not see volunteering as so important that it should
    warrant core funding for volunteer involving agencies to support their

    Another glaring gap in external perceptions of the volunteering sector is
    that legislators often overlook the impact of new legislation on how this
    sector operates. For example, the implications of the 2000 OH&S legislation
    in NSW has unwittingly added additional costs to already stretched budgets
    of many not for profit organisations to ensure compliance with the
    regulations of that act. There were similar problems with the introduction
    of the Child Protection legislation in NSW.

    It seems that on the one hand, volunteering is a good thing, but on the
    other, it doesn’t warrant much attention or resources. The perception that
    volunteers are somehow cost neutral seems to still be prevalent. For
    volunteer resource centres, the ongoing dilemma is between keeping the faith
    around volunteers having the right to choose firstly to participate in
    volunteering and then to choose how and when they participate versus keeping
    the funding going so that there is a continued service to offer to
    volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations. We seem to have gone from
    one extreme to another over the past 10 years from when people seeking work
    were actively discouraged from doing volunteer work as it was seen as a
    “distraction” from their job-seeking to the current situation of requiring
    people to undertake an activity or suffer punitive consequences. If indeed
    the agenda has been taken over by larger interests than those of our sector,
    I’d be interested in hearing how others think we can get it back again.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Submitted on September 8, 2003 by Andy Fryar, Director and Founder, OzVPM, Australia

    Since posting this article for my September Hot Topic, a friend has made me aware of an excellent article that appeared in the Australian Weekend Financial Review in August 2003., that explores the dichotomy between the nurturing of social capital and the reality of hard nosed politics. It is worth a read and can be found at


  3. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    Submitted on September 4, 2003 by Carol Spencer, Volunteer Coordinator, Sydney,Australia

    I agree with what you have written in your hot topic article.

    It seems that I constantly hear complaints from other Volunteer Coordinators about the unreasonable expectations that many VWI and other Centrelink participants have on our resources. While I am all for volunteering being an avenue for people to develop themselves further, I really think that the government need to be putting more resources into the organisations that eventually wind up having this group as members of their volunteer programs. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

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