Australian Observations ~ an interview with Susan J Ellis

Andy Fryar August 1, 2005 1
Australian Observations ~ an interview with Susan J Ellis


By OzVPM Director Andy Fryar with Susan J Ellis

This is the latest in a series of interviews OzVPM has been conducting with international volunteerism leaders who have visited the Asia Pacific region. In March 2005, Energize President, Susan J Ellis visited Australia and Singapore for the third time. She also had the opportunity to visit New Zealand for the first time ever and to participate in the inaugural ‘Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management’

We caught up with Susan recently to reflect on her ‘Pacific Adventure’

Q1. This was your third visit to Australia in 5 years. What are the primary differences you’ve noted in the the development of the Australasian volunteerism scene over that time?

There have clearly been changes at the top of all the peak bodies on the state level — after some earlier stability — and this is both a shake-up and an opportunity. It’s interesting how our field is affected by specific individuals, perhaps because the staff of volunteerism organizations are usually quite small and one or two changes therefore drastically alter the chemistry. On my earlier trips to Australia I was very impressed by the work the state volunteer centres were doing. On this trip, I was not sure what will happen next (which does not mean that great things are not coming down the road!).

On the other hand, this was my first visit to Brisbane and I saw that Volunteering Queensland is doing some imaginative work in connecting the concept of traditional volunteering into community development efforts. I also spent some time looking at their evolving online data collection effort, which will be a big plus for statistics.

While Australasians are Internet-connected and becoming more of a presence in international Web publications and discussions, there are still many colleagues who are not making full use of this incredible resource. Americans have gravitated to the Web as a way to decrease the vast geographical distance between us — it simply “works” for our networking patterns. The potential of this form of communication and mobilization remains to be fully tapped (as one example, it’s still not possible to assume broadband connections, even in hotel rooms with many foreign guests). Given your location at the end of the world, eliminating time and distance should be a very easy sell!

So I have to say that another change in the Australia scene is the presence of OzVPM. I note this not only because Andy and I work together and are friends, but because I truly believe he is offering his Australiasian colleagues the most valuable gift of a forum for learning and exchange. It will only grow over time.

Q2. On this trip you visited New Zealand for the first time. Can you share some of you impressions about the developing NZ volunteerism movement with us? As always, I was struck by how similar the participant reactions, questions, and concerns in New Zealand were to colleagues everywhere. A few things are quite different, of course. First, living in a country of only 3.5 million people does mean that there is a finite number of possible volunteers in the small communities that are spread out across New Zealand. Of course, there is a finite number of qualified/available paid staff, too!

New Zealand has decriminalized prostitution, enacted stringent anti-smoking laws, and is very tolerant of homosexuality. It’s a place that seems traditional and liberal at the same time.

I kept hearing about new “health and safety” regulations and this seems to be the New Zealand version of the same risk management craze seen everywhere.

The Maori tribes have always had a more successful relationship with the European newcomers to New Zealand than native peoples elsewhere, but it is only in the last decade or so that legal agreements have been reached to reinstate the Maori language and cultural traditions side by side with the dominant English culture. The Maori (who trace their ancestry to the Pacific Islanders who also populated Hawaii’) are integrated into all levels of society including, of course, volunteer management. But formal, agency-based volunteer activities still seek ways to engage more Maori, who tend to view service to community as a natural and informal extension of family life. In fact, there is a strong “obligation” to serve – which is a rough translation of a concept that is more willingly accepted than reluctantly fulfilled. Recent immigrants to New Zealand, especially those from Pacific Rim countries, are visibly expanding the available pool of volunteers and the way in which service occurs.

The fascinating thing about my visit to New Zealand is that apparently this was one of the very first times the “volunteer community” there worked together nationally! It was necessary for the volunteer centres in Christchurch, Wellington, and Auckland to network and communicate to make my series of workshops successful. They succeeded — and I think they liked it! Also, Volunteer New Zealand is actively exploring what its role should be and have just hired a new Executive Director (who came on board after my trip).

Q3. Another activity you were heavily involved with on this trip was the development of the first ever ‘Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management’. What were your impressions about this event and how did this experience compare with other similar ground breaking events you’ve been involved with over the years? The Retreat, which I was privileged to help plan, far exceeded even my highest expectations! I know that I participated in something that will be talked about for years to come and I count it among the top ten professional experiences of my career. It was incredibly hard work, but also wonderful fun.

This was the first time ever that those who self-identify with the profession of volunteer management in Australia met at a national event. There have been national conferences for volunteering , but never for volunteer management. So the opportunity to exchange ideas across state/territory boundaries was exciting to many of the participants in ways that I, as an American who is used to such networking, had not understood before witnessing it.

I feel that the wide geographic representation, including colleagues from New Zealand and Singapore, was key to the success of the event. I am particularly hopeful about the long-term effect of the Retreat on the still-fledgling Australasian Association of Volunteer Administrators (AAVA) – see Between formal workshop sessions and private conversations with key AAVA leaders, I think the association was able to jump past some perceived barriers and several retreat participants volunteered to serve on AAVA’s board of directors while others committed to get involved in other ways.

I have served as a “midwife” to the field in many places, participating in “first-ever” events in Ecuador, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Sweden, the UK, and of course in Canada and the USA. I take these opportunities very seriously and always find it remarkable that the most basic common denominator among the people in our field is committed optimism . By this I mean that effective volunteer program managers anywhere in the world are energetic and enthusiastic, yes, but also share a vision of a positive future. I often remark that “no one volunteers for a cause which they believe cannot succeed.” The same is true for the people who lead these volunteers forward.

Great appreciation to Andy and Martin for pioneering both the Retreat and the subsequent follow-up activities!

Q4. Can you suggest ways that countries in the Asia Pacific could work more closely together to strengthen the movement as a whole in our region? The first order of business is to get the national organizations in order. Working together has two levels: the macro and micro. The micro level is much easier because any two individuals or more who reach out to each other across geographic boundaries can find ways to exchange ideas and collaborate on projects. So the more those of you in the Asia Pacific region meet, both online and in person, the more likely that you will discover ways to work together and that’s great.

To make sure this happens: ~ Participate fully in the OzVPM listserv. That’s where you will get acquainted and can see when your perspectives are alike or different.

~ Add collegial visits to your travel plans. Once you have a few names of colleagues, arrange to do a site visit as part of a vacation or business trip. Seeing each other’s work sites is a great way to get ideas for how to collaborate.

~ Attend a volunteerism conference in a different location — even in another part of your own country.

~ Join and become active in your national association, if you have one.

The macro level is more challenging, but our shared vision of volunteerism ought to lead the way. First, each peak body has to want to work together, beyond lip service. As with all collaborations, it is important to begin the process both with goals as to what you want to get, but also with a list of things you can share. The Australians may be the most organized at this point, but this brings obligations of mentoring colleagues in other countries without lapsing into paternalism. Our governments have NOT learned to do this, so we might actually teach them something!

I do have some practical ideas, too: ~ Issue a formal invitation for representatives to attend — and present at — each other’s conferences and make use of these trips to hold productive meetings as well as learn from your visitors. I know this is expensive, but maybe a funder would be interested in enabling this?

~ Write articles for each other’s publications.

~ Use the comparatively neutral ground that consultants like Andy provide to get together without one organization dominating.

~ Coordinate shared training, just as was done during my recent tour, and consider pooling resources for publishing materials and producing audio-visual tools.

~ You are a very diverse part of the world, with so many different cultures and the strong presence of native groups. Find ways to share your understanding of this diversity/multi-culturalism…and then tell the rest of us, please!

Q5. Are there any other thoughts or experiences from your most recent trip you’d like to share? Regardless of location, it is clear that we in volunteerism have mutual concerns. Some obvious ones include the aging of the world population, time-deprived and stressed workers, the desire of new volunteers for short-term projects, interest in corporate employee volunteering, and advocacy for student service-learning. Less expected for me was the universal issue of risk management, insurance coverage, and – as the New Zealanders mentioned in every session I ran – “health and safety” policies that pose barriers to volunteering. Also discussed was “crisis fatigue” from the long string of extraordinary natural disasters, especially the tsunami that hit this region so hard. Rebuilding will take many years, yet there is already evidence that the public is reaching its maximum ability to give money and time. All of these things drive the momentum toward professional exchange, as we all need to work together to find the best ways to adapt to what is happening around us and affecting volunteers.

No one in volunteer management is isolated any more unless they choose to be. While we may still be the only person in our organization to focus on volunteers, we are not alone. The Web has made it possible for us to interact with colleagues everywhere and we are doing so with generosity and enthusiasm. Our exchange network grows as the world shrinks.

I just loved my “Pacific Adventure”! Thanks for the chance to “relive” it for a bit.


One Comment »

  1. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:32 am - Reply

    Response posted on August 4, 2005 by Ruth Gardner, Manager, Volunteering Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
    In your August Hot Topic interview with Susan Ellis she says “The fascinating thing about my visit to New Zealand is that apparently this was one of the very first times the “volunteer community” there worked together nationally!”

    I’d like to reassure Susan that in fact the New Zealand volunteer centres have been net working and communicating nationally ever since Volunteering Canterbury (the second NZ Volunteer Centre) opened in 1988. Since then we have shared resources, held national meetings, organised national conferences, and were instrumental in setting up Volunteering New Zealand in 2001.

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