Is it time we redefined volunteering?

Andy Fryar July 1, 2005 5
Is it time we redefined volunteering?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

Some months ago, I 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 community agency. Now in its third year, the original concept was to encourage 1,000 people to contribute 10 hours of volunteer time each, hence the figure 10,000 hours. This year the event actually ‘raised’ just over 20,000 hours of volunteer effort for the local community, and involved some 1,684 volunteers who contributed time to 138 volunteer agencies.

Here’s what I like about the idea.

Firstly, it is innovative. The concert offers a great incentive for many people, who may not have previously tried volunteering, to join a community group and ‘give it a go’. It seems there would also be a particular attraction in all of this to entice younger people to become involved in volunteer work. In fact, the concept could easily be duplicated to encourage the involvement of different community groups through offering concerts featuring different styles of music.

The other thing I really like about the project is that it clearly has a core goal to build the capacity of the Iowa community through increased volunteer involvement.

However, there were two other issues that the whole idea really got me thinking about which is what I wanted to share as a matter of debate through this month’s hot topic.

Incentives and rewards

I can already hear the purists amongst you thinking ‘hold on, this example does not reflect ‘true’ volunteering, as the volunteers involved are receiving a payment of sorts (ie concert tickets) for their participation’. While I personally have no problems with the concept of the 10,000 hours show, it does raise a number of questions about just where and when incentives and rewards become something more than that.

As fate would have it, Susan Ellis has written her Energize hot topic this month on this very subject. So rather than waxing lyrical abut this particular point, I would rather encourage you all to visit the Energize site and read Susan’s very comprehensive thoughts for yourself.


A redefinition of volunteering?

The second point I wanted to raise involves the way we define 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 no great fan of any definition of volunteering. For me, it always winds 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 the boundaries in which volunteering can and should operate, however my frustration continues to stem from the fact that volunteering bodies the world over create hard and fast definitions which then become ‘gospel’ for the following decade or more.

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

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

Recent developments such as the increased role of government in volunteering initiatives such as Australia’s ‘voluntary work initiative’ (VWI), where the long term unemployed can undertake 32 hours of volunteer work a fortnight in lieu of seeking paid work (and still be eligible to receive unemployment benefit) have helped pave the way for us to start defining volunteering differently. I clearly remember at the time VWI was first introduced, that there was considerable debate about whether or not this did actually constitute ‘true’ volunteering. This debate quickly died down and in Australia this initiative is now a part of our volunteering vocabulary. Similarly terms such as vacationer volunteers, virtual volunteers, episodic volunteering and family volunteer involvement were hardly even thought of a decade ago, yet today they offer a integral avenue to involving volunteers in a whole range of new and exciting opportunities.

So what about initiatives like the 10,000 hour show? Where and how does this event fit into standard volunteering definitions which clearly state that volunteering must occur without any payment, other than out-of-pocket expenses? Do we discount the many community benefits that have obviously been derived from this musical extravaganza for the sake of standing our high moral ground, or do we acknowledge that at the end of the day (or concert) the benefits derived from the process justify the means? Would the dynamics change if each volunteer got two tickets – or ten, valued at a much higher price?

Using the Volunteering Australia definition as an example (this is quite similar to definitions used the world over) , here are some of the questions I believe need to be asked and considered:

  • Why do we continually have to define volunteering only within the constraints of ‘formal’ volunteering?
  • Why can’t we create a definition that covers all types of volunteer involvement?
  • What is the rationale for this ‘formal’ volunteering only needing to occur through not-for-profit organisations?
  • Where do ‘for profit’ agencies (such as private nursing homes for example) fit into this scenario?
  • How do we define ‘without coercion’?
  • Does ‘without financial payment’ cover the whole gamut of payment types (such as concert tickets)?
  • How do we describe ‘benefit to the community’? Whose community and to what benefit?
  • Do we, by definition, prohibit ourselves from using innovative methods of incentive to recruit new volunteers to our programs?

Of course having served as the President of Volunteering Australia, I do know the rationale behind all of these arguments and I am playing the devil’s advocate here to a degree, but I truly believe this is a continuing debate that needs to occur. We need to challenge convention and think outside the square – there is no room inside a box. We need to look upon new volunteering initiatives not so much as ‘the enemy’ but rather as a new member of the family, who we should perhaps take some time to get to know before making a judgement about their genetic makeup.

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!


  1. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:40 am - Reply

    Response posted on 29th July 2005 by Kerrie Spinks, Volunteering Central West, Bathurst, NSW, Australia

    Thought I would be a pedant and answer the questions one at a time! A large cup of coffee is required to peruse this.

    * Why do we continually have to define volunteering only within the constraints of ‘formal’ volunteering?

    I think most acknowledge that informal volunteering exists in a multitude of areas – including within culturally specific groups where it is probably perceived to be helping a neighbour and not volunteering in the minds of the participants. I understand the need to acknowledge the grass roots volunteers who generate a movement/activity due to their passion for an issue and we should not be putting road blocks in their way. However I do tend to sit on the fence on this issue – I dislike red tape with the best of us BUT I also believe that a person who is contributing to their community should have insurance coverage so that if the unthinkable happens and they are injured and have a permanent disability there needs to be something in place to cover their immediate and ongoing costs – unfortunately in the existing “legalised” society that would seem to necessitate formal volunteering so that we can access an insurance policy. If the government would contemplate having a generic all encompassing policy that covered any volunteer in any situation then I would say let us forget formal volunteer and just get in and do what needs to be done to make our community a more cohesive place!

    * Why can’t we create a definition that covers all types of volunteer involvement?

    The reason this is not going to happen is that we tend to get caught up in semantics – my definition does not fit your definition! I have been involved in enough of these discussions to know that when you have four people in a room discussing this issue you will end up with ten widely differing definitions of volunteering – is that necessarily a bad thing?

    * What is the rationale for this ‘formal’ volunteering only needing to occur through not-for-profit organisations?

    If it is in a for profit organisation it is called slave labour for the profit of the organisation! However there are always exceptions – if the organisation starts a ‘quarantined’ arm where they supported not for profit activities and the parent company in no way benefited then it is a possibility.

    * Where do ‘for profit’ agencies (such as private nursing homes for example) fit into this scenario?

    See comment above – if the nursing home has a program such as the Community Visitors Scheme then it in no way adds to the profit of the nursing home and the clients get an improved quality of life because caring citizens have chosen to draw them into their more cohesive community.

    * How do we define ‘without coercion’?

    I am comfortable with the definition of “without coercion” meaning that the person had an absolute right to refuse to participate in the project. Thus people on court orders and students who need a number of hours completed to graduate are deemed to have been coerced. They are making a contribution to their community but they aren’t volunteers – because they can not refuse to continue the activity and be totally free of penalties. I am not saying these activities should not occur – I am merely saying they are not occurring ‘without coercion’ I know many will have a good experience and choose to continue working with the organisation but they came to volunteering via coercion.

    * Does ‘without financial payment’ cover the whole gamut of payment types (such as concert tickets)?

    I found Andy’s reference to VWI as being an “accepted activity” within the Australian context interesting – I would challenge that statement and say that the issues of payment and coercion in that context have never totally left the debate. However like most of this debate the whole issue of payment has always been shades of grey as opposed to the oh so comfortable black and white. Some volunteers receive ‘reimbursements’ which enter the grey zone between a real reimbursement or an average payment for everyone to make the bookkeeping easier. Concert tickets, free lunches, tickets to movies etc are these rewards or payments?

    * How do we describe ‘benefit to the community’? Whose community and to what benefit?

    Community as defined by the majority of the citizens perchance and the benefit being that the cultural ‘norm’ is even more enhanced/entrenched – or is the benefit to the government of the day in terms of less services that they need to fund?

    * Do we, by definition, prohibit ourselves from using innovative methods of incentive to recruit new volunteers to our programs?

    I think it is much more than definition that is stultifying volunteer involving organisations – it is the entrenched cultural norms and practices that have become a comfort zone within most organisations. The definition may be something to hide behind but it is also about all of us being brave enough to undergo major cultural change within our organisations – many more may need to die/wither before it is accepted that it is time to rethink the ways in which volunteers are involved within an organisation

  2. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:40 am - Reply

    Response posted on 10th July 2005 by Andy Fryar, Director, OzVPM

    Since writing this Hot Topic, I have now found another similar program, called ‘Rockcorps’ operating out of the US. The website is for anyone who is interested.

  3. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:40 am - Reply

    Response posted by Don Rhodes on 7th July 2005, Don RHodes & Associates Ltd, Otago, New Zealand

    Greetings from even further on the other side of the globe, close to our “cousins” in Australia.

    Something we find in New Zealand that may help in this debate, is the legislative constraints on volunteering, especially when it comes to offering “incentives”. Under some of our employment and workplace safety legislation, volunteers v employee is clearly defined, and that should be something for all organisations to carefully consider.

    I act as a contracted advocate to a regional Employer organisation in the south of the country [far and away the most beautiful part and one which you should all visit!!!}, and I often find situations where someone has taken on some voluntary work on the understanding from both sides that they are doing just that. Then we find that after having received some form of recognition, say the offering of petrol vouchers or similar, they then become employees. Especially in the area of health and safety in the workplace, that places more obligations on the organisation not previously considered. Payment of childcare fees is another that often occurs, which then comes under scrutiny from the tax folk in terms of whether or not the “incentive” constitutes remuneration.

    As a final thought, we have felt for what seems like centuries, that the less definitions there are, the better off everyone is. That way every set of circumstances can be dealt with as the participants see fit. It seems to me that in the area of volunteer work, there is not difference. Refrain from any attempt to define a volunteer, and simply acknowledge the work these folk do, for whatever reason, as being “gratefully received help”. In organisations I have some involvement where we are ever grateful for the efforts these people expend, we call them “our wonderful helpers”. So far they have not petitioned us for a name change. I will keep you posted.

  4. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Response posted to UKVPM’s newsgroup on 5th July 2005 (and reproduced with permission) by Richard Katona, Volunteering Development Manager, DePaul Trust, United Kingdom

    As we all know, volunteering gets very fuzzy around the edges and, to be honest, I think that is always going to be the case. Andy Fryar is right, volunteering is a dynamic phenomenon, not easily straitjacketed into rigid definitions and Susan J Ellis is right too, there does have to be a line between volunteering and not-volunteering somewhere.

    I tend to think that we should be guided by what’s happening in real life rather than what the definition says.

    A couple of old war-stories come to my mind, regarding two people who were treated fully in accordance with volunteer management good practice. But the trouble was that although they were both referred to as ‘volunteers’, neither of them really were. One was on a work experience placement and the other was on secondment from a religious community. In the first instance there were supposed to be academic placement outcomes that were not being managed at all and in the second instance the person was effectively being deprived of her statutory employment rights.

    Volunteering ‘good practice’ does not necessarily remain ‘good practice’ when used to manage not-volunteering situations, when you may need to adopt a different ‘good practice’ set.

    That, I think, rather than snappy definitions, is the real point.

  5. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Response posted on 4th July 2005 by Andy Stoll, The 10,000 Hours Show\The James Gang, Iowa City, Iowa, USA
    Just ran across your article on the struggle of “defining” volunteerism and your example of The 10,000 Hours Show. I don’t really want to get into the debate regarding whether a concert ticket is “buying” off someone and thus negating the entire concept of “volunteering,” but let me give you some points that argue that “the ends justify the means, in the case of The 10,000 Hours Show’

    Some basic facts and stats from the 2nd Annual 10,000 Hours Show:
    [keeping in mind that State of Iowa, which is primarily an agriculture based state and has a really big problem with young people moving away to bigger cities. Thus engaging young people in their communities is a very good thing.]

    • 95% of registered volunteers are between the ages of 17 and 30.
    • Participating volunteers report higher connection to their city after their service.
    • Through 10K, hundreds of young Iowans have fun and connect with each other at volunteer fairs, service efforts, and the concert.

    • 155 10K2 participants were first-time volunteers.
    • 26% of participants served more because of 10K.
    • 7% of participating volunteers would not have served without 10K.
    • 100% of 10K2 volunteers who completed their hours plan on serving in the future.

    • The annual 10K concert is a unique celebration of service, a chance for Iowa to say “Thank you” to young citizens in a way that excites – and motivates – them.
    • 10K2 gathered hundreds of volunteers from across Iowa as a united community of volunteers.

    • 75 young Iowans make up 10K’s yearlong staff.
    • 95% of staff are 25 or younger.
    • All gain experience in management, event planning, marketing, graphic design, entrepreneurship, and more.

    Hope that helps. I appreciate you taking the time to spread the word of The 10,000 Hours Show.

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