OzVPM HOT TOPIC – JANUARY 2006
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
In the OzVPM e-newsletter for December 2005, I offered a ‘tip of the month’ which suggested we look carefully at the events we choose to celebrate throughout the course of a year, to be sure we don’t exclude volunteers from different religious, cultural or lifestyle groups from feeling truly included within the life of our program.
I specifically used the example that while many of us happily label our end-of-year celebrations as ‘Christmas’ events, we often neglect to recognise major events from other faiths throughout the course of a year, and I posed the question of whether this had the potential to alienate some of our volunteers as a result. As you can imagine, this elicited a great deal of response both within the OzVPM newsgroup and also via personal emails sent directly to me ‘off group’. It was such a burning issue that I thought it worthwhile following up with a broader discourse through this month’s ‘hot topic’ forum.
As a re-cap for those of you who did not read the original ‘tip’, here’s an excerpt of what I wrote:
It’s December and ’tis the season to be jolly’, however our communities (and by default more and more volunteers) are coming from cultures, religions and backgrounds where Christianity is not the dominant belief system. It’s easy to overlook this in the course of our busy schedules and assume that all our volunteers also celebrate the Christmas season in the same way we might. While I am not suggesting that we no longer hold Christmas parties, it is important to assess the language we use, and be culturally sensitive to those volunteer team members who don’t celebrate Christmas. Failing to do this risks alienating those volunteers who don’t celebrate at this time of the year. Perhaps an ‘end of year’ function works better or maybe we need to also celebrate and make mention of significant annual cultural events from other countries.
My point was not one about political correctness, nor was it about trying to deny the importance of Australia ‘s Christian heritage. Rather the message I wanted to make was that we should remember that our communities, and by default our volunteer programs, are constantly being reinvented and made up by a much broader cross section of people than simply those who come from English speaking backgrounds and have a belief in Christianity. Indeed if anything, I believe Christmas in most western countries now feels more like a holiday dedicated to the power of credit facilities and commercialism rather than a religious celebration.
To move away from the direct example of Christmas, there is a broader issue I’d like to raise in this month’s column – that being the way that we, as Volunteer Program Managers do – or more often than not do not actively include individuals and groups from other cultural and lifestyle groups into our volunteer programs.
Sadly, I believe we all too often give only ‘lip service’ to inclusion within our programs. Sure we talk all the time about involving indigenous people, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) populations, those with disabilities, young people, the homeless and many other marginalised groups – but how many of us actually go out of our way to actively engage these groups as volunteers?
Further, what do we miss out on by not pursuing them as volunteers within our organisations?
My thinking about what might constitute ‘true inclusion’ has been fuelled by my recent trip abroad where I heard a number of statistics which were absolutely mind blowing, and where I heard testimonies and reports that attest to the less than ideal job most of us are doing in this respect (my apologies for those of you who are already doing this well)
Let me cite just a few examples.
While in suburban Glasgow in Scotland , a friend told me that in the local public primary school 96% of students came from families where English was not the first language spoken at home (no that’s not a misprint!). Similarly, in Ireland , 38% of the many immigrants heading into that country come from countries where English is not the main language (mainly from eastern Europe ).
Sure these are overseas examples, but in Australia , nearly 2 million people have immigrated to our country since 1980 and around one in four Australians were born overseas, so perhaps the picture is not so different.
Consider an article in a recent edition of the ‘Herald Sun’ newspaper (22/12/2005) which strengthens this argument. The article cited statistics about changes in religious affiliations in Victoria over the period 1996 – 2001. It told us that Buddhism had grown by 77%, Hinduism by 45%, Islam by 38% and Judaism by 6%. Catholicism was up by only 3.8% while the Anglican church was actually down by 1.6%. To be fair, the article did not cite figures mentioning the huge growth in the Pentecostal movement over recent years (see our May 2005 Hot Topic), however the point is that we cannot deny that in Australia, as in many other countries around the world, we now live in highly complex multi-cultural communities, and sadly, I constantly fail to observe this diversity within our volunteer programs.
Moving away from cultural differences, here are a few other questions to ponder:
- What proportion of people with disabilities do you have involved in your volunteer program?
- How many indigenous Australians are registered as volunteers?
- How do you actively involve young people or families in your agency?
- When was the last time you advertised for volunteers from within specialist target groups like gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transsexual (GLBT) communities?
The most common (and often easiest) excuse I often hear is that these groups only choose to volunteer within their own cultural or interest group, and while there may indeed be some small element of truth to this – the question I’d like to pose is how often do we actually ask ?
Let’s take the GLBT community as an example. A 1998 report* found that not only do this group give more in terms of both volunteering time and financial support than the general population, they also give equally to the GLBT community and other broader causes.
Surely if ‘word of mouth’ and asking people to participate are the most effective methods of recruitment it augurs the question of why aren’t we asking more? Consider the charity toy runs that occur each year by biker groups around the world – someone somewhere had the foresight to make an approach to these unconventional groups – with positive and pleasing results.
I’m reminded of a story told in ‘Turn your organisation into a volunteer magnet’ ** by friend and Australian ex-pat (now Londoner) Nikki Squelch, about her successful efforts to befriend and eventually recruit a number of new immigrants from the African country of Eritrea to her program. While I’d encourage you to read the full story for yourself, it is clear that in Nikki’s case, the time she spent getting to know this marginalised group had far reaching benefits for both her agency and the Eritreans themselves. Had Nikki not taken the time to seek out and connect directly with this group this tremendous union would never have taken place.
So what does a successful and inclusive program look like?
Well I think it is a program where the involvement of marginalised or minority groups and populations is pro-actively sought and encouraged – and not just spoken about.
One of the best examples I have come across involves Scope in the UK. Scope is an UK based disability organisation whose focus is on people living with cerebral palsy. Their aim is that “disabled people achieve equality: a society in which they are as valued and have the same human and civil rights as everyone else” . Having worked myself for more than a decade in the disability sector I love the fact that Scope don’t just hang their hat on their mission – they go beyond ‘saying’ what they will do and instead practice what they preach. For example not only do they have a staffing policy which dictates that 10% of their staff (at all levels of the agency) must be people with disabilities, they also have a system of ‘enabling funds’ that assist disabled volunteers to have the opportunity to make any necessary physical and support changes in the workplace to aid in their participation. It’s a great example I think we can all learn from.
So why not start your new year by making a pledge to find exciting ways to involve new volunteer groups in your agency?
Now let’s hear from you.
- Do you agree that we don’t do a good enough job of being pro-active’ in seeking marginalised groups as volunteers in our programs?
- What do you think are the barriers to this happening better?
- If you already do this well – why not share your story and tips of success for others to learn from?
** “Turn you organisation into a volunteer magnet” , 2004, Fraser Dyer, Andy Fryar, Rob Jackson (editors)