Tales from the Dark Side

Andy Fryar October 1, 2006 10
Tales from the Dark Side


By guest hot topic writer, DJ Cronin with OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

Our Hot Topic this month is contributed by DJ Cronin, a Volunteer Program Manager from Brisbane who recently made the move to working in a ‘for profit’ hospital after many years in the not-for-profit sector. The reaction by many of DJ’s peers to his change in focus has been interesting to say the least, and so we decided it was time to open up this can of worms and see what crawled out!

An eerie quietness settled upon the room. One could hear the rain beat on the windowpanes while in the distance, a dog barked.

All I had said was that I was a Volunteer Manager working in a ‘for profit’ organisation.

Someone hissed. I caught my reflection in the windowpane. My eyes glowed red and the horns on top of my head seemed to grow longer. I suddenly stood, and wrapping my black cape around myself I began a laugh that began with a slow giggle and gradually increased to a roar of laughter as I exposed my fangs. Some VPMs fainted while others made for the doors and windows in panic.

Ah Satire! Some say it is the lowest form of wit but I disagree. While I thought that the opening paragraphs and headline might grab your attention for this month’s Hot Topic, there are actually some aspects of truth in what I have written above although granted, the devil part is made up for those of you seriously worried about me!

The setting was the recent ‘Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management’ held in Brisbane . I had been sitting in my community group when our facilitator had asked us for issues that we would like to discuss. When someone mentioned the topic of volunteers working in the ‘for profit’ sector someone shouted from the back “yea – the prostitution of Volunteering!” Someone else spoke up saying, “just ask DJ”, with the comment coming a person who had already approached me earlier, informing me that I had joined the dark side! Talk about being in the spotlight!

I waited a while and eventually had the opportunity to talk about our wonderful volunteer program and I wondered aloud what our volunteers would think of the notion of the prostitution of volunteering?

Another specific incident prompted me to write on this subject. While surfing through Volunteering Australia’s excellent new website I came across a PowerPoint presentation all about volunteering which I quickly downloaded. The presentation included a statement or definition that stated volunteers only volunteered for ‘not for profit agencies’. Really? Then what were those people freely giving their time to our organisation to be called?

The fact is that many hospitals and aged care facilities have been bought and are now being run by and as private organisations. Many have adopted the volunteer programs that already existed at the time of purchase, while others have actually instigated brand new volunteer programs. Are we to ignore and/or shun this new trend or are we going to embrace it as another avenue for people exercising their democratic right to volunteer where and how they choose to do so?

I make it a point to ask each volunteer applying to work at my agency about their motivation for volunteering. Their answers are the universal answers that we all hear:

  • I want to volunteer at my local hospital
  • I’ve been to this hospital, the care I received was excellent and now I’d like to volunteer here
  • I want to bring companionship to sick people
  • I have an affinity for war veterans and I want to assist them in some way

And just in case you are wondering, yes I do inform them of the status of the hospital and its history. The organisation that I work for engages volunteers to provide care and companionship for patients as well as their loved ones. I could tell many inspiring tales about the differences they have made to people’s lives. We have shared tears and laughter. Volunteers do that.

I have worked in volunteer management for over 8 years, the majority of that time in the not for profit sector and believe me when I tell you that I won’t stay in any organisation that does not value and respect its volunteering teams! Management has trusted my experience and expertise to run this volunteer program and I am part of that management team. Our volunteer mission statement states that our service plays an integral role in the care and wellness of patients, and that our volunteers strive to provide a positive experience for patients and recognise diversity by treating all people with dignity and respect.

You may well ask where we should draw a line in the sand? I suggest that these things need to be looked at on a case by case basis – that is to say, we need to examine the nature of the volunteering and the contribution that it makes to the lives of the people it affects – as well as to the volunteers themselves.

Many years ago I learnt that rigid views can stop progress. In fact rigid views can lead to strife and even wars. If our society as a whole dropped these views and adopted the middle ground where we take a look at both sides of the coin, then we would have a more cohesive, tolerant, peaceful and compassionate society. And that is not a rigid view of mine as I can listen to other views without hissing at others! .but I digress!

I do hope that we do not see the creation of different tiers of volunteering in our society along the ‘for profit’ vs ‘not for profit’ lines, and that we also don’t venture down the George Orwell road where all volunteers are equal – but some are just a little more equal than others!

Additional thoughts by Andy Fryar

OK, so what do you make of DJ’s thoughts and what thinking do you have of your own around this topic of volunteers working in the ‘for profit’ sector?

For me this has been a topic of great interest for many years, as it has always seemed that the prescriptive measure of volunteering in ‘not-for-profit agencies only’, so often stated in volunteering definitions, has always seemed contradictory to those parts of the same definitions which usually precede it – namely that volunteering is done by free will. After all, if I choose to go and volunteer for Rupert Murdoch, knowing fully that my efforts are going to line his pocket, why should I not be allowed to do that and why should that effort not be called volunteering? Now I know that is an extreme example (and not a likely one), but if we are going to look objectively at this topic we need to push the boundaries and ask the questions as the answers are not always as black and white as we would like – in fact in volunteerism grey is usually the colour of choice!

Consider these examples:

  • Corporate volunteering has largely been accepted now as a valid avenue of voluntary service, yet in many cases it is clear that these relationships still largely benefit the corporate partner and not so much the NFP agency they are working with
  • What about the vast amounts of money saved by governments through the utilisation of volunteers? Sure they don’t directly benefit shareholders, but let’s be honest and acknowledge there is more than just goodwill behind the motivations of governments wanting to involve volunteers
  • Through the direct fundraising efforts of volunteers, many NFP’s raise significant and substantial funds that go directly towards paying for the salaries and wages of their staff, yet we never question this

Here’s where DJ’s comments are so vital – as a professional in our field, he acknowledges that there is the possibility for volunteers working in the for profit sector to be taken advantage of, which is the very reason he believes we need to be more inclusive of that part of volunteerism – so that we can ensure we have well trained people working in those agencies and making sure that everything is done in the right way and for the right reasons.

At the end of the day it surely must be a better alternative to the ‘Ostrich’ approach so many of us seem to want to take.

OK over to all of you – let’s hear your comments about this fascinating topic



  1. Helen Morrell March 16, 2015 at 7:36 am - Reply

    Well said DJ. I too am a volunteer manager in the profit sector – a private hospital. The following is an article I wrote in response to queries as to why volunteers are utilised in a private hospital. ….. A frequent argument, against accepting volunteers into private hospitals, is based on the assumption that people in the public system are those who can not afford to take private health insurance and hence are surely more in need of volunteers. I have no hesitation in happily working with volunteers in a private hospital and thought I would share my thoughts as to why, in case any of you are asked, or have, similar questions.
    As most people realise, many of those who elect to have private cover do so as a priority – necessarily sacrificing other things for the benefit. Others can easily afford it and hence are covered. On the other hand, alongside those who are unable to afford private cover, are a large number of public patients who have the means to take out private insurance but don’t choose to do so. Regardless of any of that however, the overriding fact is that monetary wealth, or otherwise, does not determine human need nor does it measure levels of social interaction.
    A quick search of research and studies, regarding the benefits of social interaction, shows that all manner of illnesses and traumas are eased when people feel a sense of connection to others. Stress levels are lower and physical benefits, to those who have social interactions, are real. One study showed that cold germs, sprayed up the noses of willing volunteers, were four times less likely to infect those who had strong bonds with other people as opposed to those who were socially isolated (interesting volunteer job that one!!).
    Volunteers at any hospital provide added, and valuable, connection for a number of patients who are socially isolated. They also provide a valuable service for patients (and visitors) who may be well socially supported but who none-the-less appreciate the time, acceptance, warmth and comfort offered by a volunteer.
    As with social interaction, the ability to walk easily, or not, is not determined by private or public health status and the courtesy buggy service is certainly well appreciated by those who struggle to walk up (or down) a hill……..I believe whatever sector we work in we need to ensure our volunteers are not exploited The roles volunteers undertake in the hospital in which I work are not those of paid staff.

  2. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Response posted on 30th October 2006 by Kate Munro, Consultant, New South Wales, Australia

    Well DJ – I think the wonderful thing is that it is an Irish man pushing the envelope – pity we can’t all sit down with a guiness and have a good old chin wag about this!

    I think the bigger picture for all of us is why do organisations have Volunteers involved in the first place – NFP or FP. Having recently been made redundant after 17 years of passionate management of Volunteers in a hospital setting I feel that so much lip service is paid to the value Volunteers bring to the organsiation -as my CEO (he was my manager) on facing 93 of my Volunteers to tell of my postion being deleted commented ” I was pleasantly surprised by the intelligence and intellect of the group”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! need I say more…well I could but wont.

    Those of us who are committed to meaningful Volunteer management have always had the challenge of how to communicate the real reason organisations have Volunteers involved and to have that communication be understood and how sad that your colleagues find the need to hiss (don’t they know you !) Its about the human being who chooses to offer their skills, talents, time, compassion, need to gain work skills etc etc and how they will be taken care of by the organisation that matters.

    I ask each of you to ask your paid colleagues to tell you why you have Volunteers involved and their answers will give you insight into how to ensure they know the real reason – be prepared for some shocking replies!

    You have not gone over to the dark side my friend but have just slipped in to another stream and hit a few rapids!! – hold on tight.

  3. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Response posted on 14th October 2006 by Michelle Hodshon, Manager Volunteer Services, Adelaide, South Australia

    Whether it be profit or not-for-profit organisations, it comes down to the individual who is prepared to give their time, skills and experiences to the benefit of other human beings, is this not what volunteering is all about…

  4. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:27 am - Reply

    Response posted on 7th October 2006 by Zoe Pelteki, Manager, Volunteer Services, Calvary Health Care Bethlehem Inc, Victoria, Australia

    Firstly lets not forget Volunteers are a resource!

    They provide qualitative and quantitative benefits to the organization, clients, patients, staff and community they provide their valuable time and energy to. Unless the organization they are giving to is a not for profit or government operated facility, I say NO to volunteers being used in a profit making, privately owned or share holders based organization!

  5. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Response posted on 7th October 2006 by Anastasia Magriplis, Manager Volunteers & Special Employment Projects, Lifeline Community Care Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
    Congratulations DJ for bringing out into the open one of the areas of discussion that we as a sector need to have. With the privatisation of many of our social services it is becoming increasingly important for us to at least have an open mind to be able to adapt to the new playing field. This is especially true of the health sector which is undergoing pretty major transformations under the current regime! The motivation of volunteers, the roles that volunteers undertake and the support of ethical volunteer management practices are probably the most important issues that need to be discussed. By alienating professionals and in turn volunteers in this area we are probably not taking the best approach we (as a sector) need to take to ensure that volunteering remains driven by what is needed in our community. I’m not sure that there is too much difference between a “For Profit” hospital or health service and a church based private service that reinvests it’s profits into staff and services. I say bring on more discussion about our “Sacred Cow” issues to that we can continue to challenge ourselves and set up true, achievable and evolving benchmarks for our sector.

  6. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Response posted on 6th October 2006 by Rob Jackson, Founder & Moderator, UKVPM’s (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/UKVPMs ), London, England

    Thanks DJ for putting your head above the parapet and being prepared to share your thoughts. This kind of debate and discussion is what advances our sector – dismissing volunteering in for-profit sectors without thinking through the issues only serves to limit our own thinking, something we frequently accuse managers in Volunteer Involving Organisations of doing when they dismiss our efforts to develop volunteer opportunities.

    Personally, I think we need to move away from thinking about not for profit agencies as not for profit. The distinction is not in our desire to make a profit but in how the agency uses that profit – for the benefit of shareholders or for the benefit of stakeholders (i.e. Clients, communities served etc.). I have yet to find a not for profit agency that is truly striving not to make a profit because the truth is that to do so is to start down a road to financial disaster.

  7. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:26 am - Reply

    Response posted on 6th October 2006 by Stacey Gossip, Volunteer Coordinator, Mater Health Services, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia
    I say…why not have volunteers in a ‘for profit’ organisation?

    Volunteering is about motivation – people wanting to help others without wondering who’s picking up the tab. If you want to lessen someone’s loneliness or workload what does it matter where the funds for their care is coming from. The fact is people could use some extra care and attention regardless of what organisation come under (profit and non profit).

    I think the problem is that we have this deluded view that volunteering for a non-profit organisation is somehow more noble or ‘right’.

    Like a profit organisation would have the money to pay a team of psychologists to come in and sit and chat with their patients every day. Or drive them to an appointment. Or give them a massage.

    You can’t pay people to care. As a Psychologist I know this to be true!

    I think it’s nice that in this mostly self centred world we live in there are still people willing to be with another person in whatever capacity they need, without expecting something in return. Likewise, I think most people are touched to be attended to by someone who is giving their time to them without a cost attached.

  8. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Response posted on 5th October 2006 by Susan J Ellis, President, Energize Inc, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
    With the flames lapping at my feet, DJ, I agree with your point of view! Whenever I try to explain this, I get the same hissing sound! In fact, many years ago I wrote a book about volunteer centers for the United Way of America. In it, I noted that a volunteer center needs to answer the question of which audiences they do and don’t serve. I put in a list of considerations, including “will you serve for-profit settings that involve volunteers?” When I got the manuscript back for a final review, the UWA editorial staff had summarily cross out that line, with a margin note “there are no volunteers in a for-profit setting.” Needless to say, I argued that one — and won. The original sentence remained in the book.

    Back in 2000, I wrote a Hot Topic for my Energize Web site on “Volunteering in For-Profit Settings: Exploitation or Value Added?” (http://www.energizeinc.com/hot/feb00.phpl). It’s a bit dated, but it might add to the discussion here (including what site visitors said to me back then).

    Thanks for raising this topic — which we need to address without knee-jerk negative reactions.
    Guess you don’t need a Halloween costume???

  9. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Response posted on 5th October 2006 by Nicole Milazzo, Coordinator, Volunteer Services Unit, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Qld, Australia
    Like DJ I also downloaded the Volunteering Australia presentation. My volunteer information sessions are ever-evolving and I questioned how I might go about wording that part of the presentation in relation to our organisation being part of the government – neither NFP or FP. I took out the NFP wording and didn’t give it too much more thought. As a government girl and as I have got my footing over the last year or so in the volunteer sector I have never felt quite comfortable with the NFP only argument for volunteering. It takes an article like DJ’s to create some interest and dialogue about such an issue, so I hope it sparks a lively debate. I would agree with DJ that things need to be looked at on a case by case basis and it would definitely be ugly if a line of volunteers in NFP vs FP was drawn in the sand.

    To be honest I didn’t even question the fact that when DJ moved organisations he was going to a For Profit – even though I knew he was moving to a private hospital?!?… so as he mentioned there must be many health care facilities out there that have been bought and taken over for profit. Something for me to think about. Thanks DJ.

  10. ozvpm_andy April 9, 2012 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Response posted on 4th October 2006 by Sandy Hilder, Volunteer & Consumer Participation Coordinator, Toowoomba Health Service District, Qld, Australia
    I remember being horrified when I attended a volunteers awards function last year – the coordinator of a for profit agency proudly spoke publicly of the amount of hours his volunteers put in, then converted it to $ – saying the agency would have to find this to keep running!
    However, DJ raises some very good points- these volunteers are doing so for the right reason and are just wanting to contribute to the community. The agency concerned in my case does provide a much needed service, and I now refer volunteers to this agency if I cannot place them.
    The risk is that some organisations and companies may exploit volunteers – do we need a “volunteer watchdog”????!!!

    Good article DJ!

    DJ’s Response to Sandy: I like your response. In my opinion we ourselves as Volunteer Management professionals need to be the Volunteer Watchdog, ensuring volunteer services are never exploited or misused!

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