Do we need a new title for volunteering???

Andy Fryar February 1, 2004 5
Do we need a new title for volunteering???


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

Over the past few months I’ve heard an increasing number of people comment that it was time we started to think about using an alternate title to that of ‘volunteer’.

The most often cited reason for this appears to be the belief that the ‘V’ word no longer has the same relevance or meaning that it once did within mainstream society. Proponents of this theory suggest that if we are to recruit and attract new (and perhaps younger) people to volunteering, then maybe the current terminology needs to make way for something new.

Whenever this idea is mentioned, it tends to set off a number of polarised thoughts in my mind.

Allow me to share a few of them with you.

Firstly, let me state unequivocally that I do support the idea of re-labelling specific volunteer positions. For far too long, we have been caught up in automatically adding the title ‘volunteer’ as either a prefix or suffix to every volunteer position ever created! I’ve even heard of unpaid volunteer support workers referred to as ‘volunteer volunteer coordinators’!

For instance, why give the person who assists with your administration and clerical duties a job title such as ‘clerical volunteer’ , ‘office volunteer’ , ‘volunteer office worker’ or ‘volunteer administration assistant’ ? Why not simply call them the ‘office manager’, ‘administrator’ or ‘clerical assistant’?

Surely the more important part of any title is what a person actually does and not what their rate of pay is – after all, we don’t use titles like ‘paid CEO’, ’employed gardener’ or ‘salaried bus driver’ for staff who are on the payroll!

Other possible benefits of this approach include:
– Potential volunteers finding job titles challenging and fresh (and therefore being more likely to want to be involved)
– Breaking down the ‘them and us’ barriers that sometimes arise between paid and unpaid staff
– The enhancement of greater team development opportunities

While the benefits of an approach of this kind are many, let me at this point also acknowledge that they can easily lead to issues of demarcation if not implemented with care and consultation.

So what about the term ‘volunteer’ in the broader context?

– Is it ‘out of date’?
– Does the volunteer ‘brand’ no longer have relevance to a new generation?
– Do people conjure up images only of grey haired old ladies when they hear the name ‘volunteer’ mentioned?
– Is this terminology really the ‘root of all evil’ in relation to the apparent lack of available new volunteers in the marketplace?
– Should we find a term that is newer and more relevant?

For me, the answer is a resounding ‘NO’.

Here are just a couple of thoughts about why I don’t believe that the term is out of date and some reasons I do not think we need to replace it for a younger and more up-to-date version.

One third of Australians over the age of 15 already volunteer on a regular basis and the percentages are similar in many other countries in this region. While many of these volunteer duties already have titles that do not include the word ‘volunteer’ (eg coach, fire fighter, lifeguard or Board member), these same people were clearly able to identify their activities as being voluntary, when questioned by Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) staff in 2000.

Further, we do not live in a vacuum, and it would be naive to think that the two thirds of the population who do not volunteer, have not gained at least some level of understanding about the variety of volunteer roles that exist, from the one third who do volunteer. If one in three of us volunteer, then there are also certainly many role models around to demonstrate the changing face of volunteering.

Most volunteers are proud of the title they wear and the work that they do. Volunteering is based on reciprocity – meaning that while volunteers want to give of themselves, they also need something in return.

The ABS figures reflect this beautifully.

When asked the question of why they currently volunteered, the number one reason that the respondents stated was ‘to help others / community’ closely followed by ‘personal satisfaction’. This accurately reflects the notion of reciprocity (ie. a ‘giving’ reason was # 1, a ‘getting’ reason # 2) and indicates that people are proud of the work they do in an unpaid / volunteer capacity.

Let’s face it, the 50,000 unpaid staff at the Sydney Olympics did not march through the streets to fanfare from the adoring public because they had participated in the Games as a ‘greeter’ or ‘bus driver’. While these descriptive titles were important at the time the Olympics were being staged, the many thousands of helpers from Sydney 2000 later marched and accepted our accolades, with the collective pride of being recognised as a ‘volunteer’.

We have a strong ‘volunteer’ culture in our region to build on. With national bodies in our region already having names like;
– Volunteering Australia
– Volunteering New Zealand and
– National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre’ (Singapore)
and with state / provincial bodies boasting titles such as;
– Volunteering SA
– Volunteering NSW and
– Volunteering Auckland,
we have resisted the temptation of following some of our North American cousins in adopting more non-descriptive titles while at the same time cementing the title ‘volunteer’ well into our vocabulary.

The logistics of beginning to use a different phrase (s) is mind blowing. If some are already suggesting that ‘volunteer’ is not understood (after how long?) then what chance do we have to put in an alternative that will be universally branded, marketed and understood by all members of our society? How would we even begin to agree on one (or maybe more) alternate titles?

So what’s the solution?

I believe that the solution lies in working hard to re-brand the ‘product’ we already have and utilising more exciting and dynamic volunteer job titles at a local level will certainly assist in this regard.

Let me examine an analogy from Coca~Cola.

To reach new audiences, the Coca-Cola company has started to offer a new and exciting range of flavours to attract a new audience. First there was ‘diet coke’ then came ‘diet coke with lemon’, ‘vanilla coke’ and then most recently we have had the introduction of ‘cherry coke’.

Note two things – firstly, new flavours (or ways of doing things) have the potential to attract a new and different audience. Secondly, the new flavours have never lost the Coke tag. Not only do new buyers experience something new ~ they also have the Coke experience!

Maybe that’s what we need to offer our volunteers – something new, but something still carefully branded as being a volunteer experience.

Now it’s your turn.

– Do you agree / disagree with my sentiments?
– Do you think that the term ‘volunteer’ has past its use by date?
– Do you believe we need to work hard to preserve the term ‘volunteer’?
– What other thoughts do you have to add to this debate?

Let’s hear what you think.


  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Submitted on March 4th 2004 by Darren Williamson, Volunteer Network, Cape York Partnerships, Northern Australia

    I have an issue.

    I am totally fine with calling a volunteer, a volunteer. But my employer wants to refer to them as ‘employees’. I have a problem with this because they are not. There is a fundamental difference between an employee and a volunteer. That is, one gets paid and the other not.

    The argument is that because they want volunteers and employees to be treated the same. I agree, but I think calling a volunteer an employee is a clear misappropriation of both titles.

    Does anyone else have this issue? Are there any legal implications for referring in documentation to a volunteer as an employee?

    Your advice would be appreciated.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:55 am - Reply

    Submitted on March 3rd 2004 by Rosie Williams – Team Leader, Volunteer Support, SA Ambulance Service, Adelaide, South Australia

    I am always a little nervous when I write on line in response to a hot topic however here goes!

    I agree in a lot of what Andy has said here, (mmm that can’t be right … ooh well …wonders never cease!) One comment I would like to make however, is I think that in some instances it is useful for our customers (or clients, consumers what ever title we are using) to know that the person who is answering the phone, visiting them, or transporting them or supervising their access visits with their children (or what ever) are volunteers.

    Whilst employed by Family and Youth Services as the coordinator of volunteers some years ago I had to put out quite a few fires because the ‘Community Aide’ (a volunteer role) for what ever reason, allowed clients to believe that they were qualified Social Workers (a very specialist role that is quite different within the organisation). I understand that it is altermately the responsibility of the person organising the supervision or transport to inform the clients that the person coming is a volunteer, (and this did happen), however sometimes the people receiving the service have so many different faces to remember it can become confusing and they are often not sure who is who!

    I can hear some of you saying …well with proper training about boundaries etc volunteers should learn when to refer the client back to a qualified worker! Yes they should, however one volunteer in particular got quite a buzz and into character as the ‘Social Worker’ and she didn’t want to let on! (oohhh dear I fear I am opening a can of worms …. :0) ) I do however agree that rather than change the name of the sector and move away from the term “volunteering” we need to continually promote the sector, the realities and so on.

    I recently had a poke around in another sector for a short time and when people asked what my experience was and I responded with “manager of volunteers” I received lots of fascinating reactions, to a big step back wards, puzzled looks, to “oohh isn’t that lovely what a sweet thing to be able to do” (yeah easy peezy!), to “is that a real job”? or “what was your paid work”? Everyone had a different reaction.

    For fear of getting on my soap box again I believe that the role of Manager, Coordinator, or what ever the millions of titles used for paid staff in volunteering, is still (more often than not) very misunderstood, marginalised, often underpaid, unrecognised with in organisations ….so on so on !! I know that things have moved considerably over the past years, however I am just saying I believe we have a long long way to go. Do you think that it would help our credibility to remove the word ‘volunteer’ from paid staff titles?? eg: Volunteer Manager ??

    Look forward to hearing what you think

  3. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Submitted on February 3rd 2004 by Jill Mawdsley – Queensland Community Care Network Inc. , Queensland, Australia

    I couldn’t agree more with Andy’s thoughts and I think the analogy of coke says it all, like any good marketing campaign it give us opportunity to reach more people with diverse tastes.

    The word “Volunteer” is a collective word, but doesn’t always evoke an image that all would like to share; I know from my own feedback received that in some cases they are negative.
    · Something that people with far too much time on their hands do.
    · Only retired people volunteer.
    · People who are looking for work do.

    Conversely, those that are now educated in the world of volunteering or of a different generation would (and do) argue a very positive stance in the word volunteer.
    · That it’s great to be involved in community at some level, and for paid staff to know I give my time freely.
    · It broadens ones horizons.
    · It great to be in a position to give back.

    So to abandon the word volunteer which is recognised as a known label could be considered fool hardy and maybe the lesson can be learned from other companies which add meaning and passion to the original source, should be considered. I think this will require each organisation to laterally inject enthusiasm adding new flavours into each role, thus minimising the labels.

  4. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Submitted on February 2nd 2004 by Michael Collisson, Coordinator of Volunteer Network, Burwood, Australia

    Just a quick response to this months hot topic, thoughts that immediately sprung to mind.

    a ) The title of Volunteer is one that is proudly worn by thousands of Australian’s, who I feel, would be both confused and possibly insulted that someone would want to change a universal term that unites people across all spheres in the common goal of improving quality of life for others.

    b) I doubt very much that young people do not understand what the term Volunteer means and that a change of name is hardly likely to provide further encouragement for younger people to pursue the idea of volunteering.

    c) The challenge for us is to change the perception of volunteering as being the preserve of mainly older people and to promote volunteering as a positive action that encompasses all generations and communities. For instance many thousands of younger people already volunteer, a fact that should be widely broadcast. The best way to encourage younger people to volunteer is to create or redevelop volunteer positions that are relevant to to their generation. We must remember one of the golden rules, that is that people need to get as well as to give from the act of volunteering.

    d) A change of title will leave the role of volunteering open to abuse, mis-interpretation and possible demarcation disputes.

    Just some thoughts from an immediate reaction to the proposal

  5. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Submitted on February 2nd 2004 by Clare Doyle, Program Manager – Community Visitors Scheme, MS Society of Victoria, Blackburn, Victoria, Australia

    When I read the start of the article I thought Yes he is right , we need to change, however as the comments expanded I agree with you. Why do we use labels for volunteers???

    The term volunteer is known throughtout the world. We run a Community Visitors Scheme in Aged Care Homes and call the volunteers “community visitors.”

    Thank you

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