Reclaiming the true value of volunteers

Andy Fryar June 1, 2007 2
Reclaiming the true value of volunteers


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

This month, as we celebrate the 5th birthday of OzVPM, I’ve been reflecting a little on the changes we have seen in the sector over the past 5 years here in Australia .

Without doubt, some of the biggest differences have been the growth of corporate volunteer programs, a steady increase in the number of government volunteer Ministers being appointed and government volunteering offices being created around the country. There has been a steady redefining of Volunteer Centre roles and the availability of free training for volunteers has trebled at the very least.

When I first set up OzVPM, it was largely due to the fact that at the time there was a distinct absence of any good quality Australian volunteerism websites. Thankfully this has also been remedied to a degree over the past half a decade. Government ‘compacts’ have become commonplace, research into volunteering habits and motivations have continued to be produced at a rate of knots, while around the globe, there has been a steady growth in the development of even more professional Associations.

Most significantly in all of this, there is evidence that in Australia at least (I am not too sure of NZ statistics at this time), volunteer involvement rates have continued to buck the international trend by increasing!

While focusing on these positive changes is all well and good, there are some aspects of the volunteerism movement that have hardly moved an inch in the last 5 years. One of these is that I still fail to see any real effort by government or others, being put into extra resources for the training of volunteer program managers. This, in spite of the fact that we can just about train volunteers to death these days! And while it is true that there is training available at some levels, all too often that level is not much more than the basics.

A bigger bug bear of mine, and perhaps a catalyst for the lack of VPM training mentioned above is the fact that our society still tends to look at the work of volunteers through rose coloured glasses.

With the work I do, I am lucky enough to be a part of many conferences, seminars and other functions that are periodically rolled out for volunteers. As a general rule, the Minister whose Department is funding the event is duly marched out and paraded on stage as he or she makes the obligatory speech about just how wonderful volunteers are. Inevitably, other ‘experts’ from outside of volunteering are also asked to address these forums about their areas of specialty.

While I understand there is a place for these things in conferences, what drives me crazy is the mindset these people often bring with them to the lectern, the starting point from which they make the assumptions on which their speeches are invariably based.

Here’s what that is.

~ Volunteers are nice.

~ They are benevolent and selfless.

~ All giving, altruistic and we are quite certain that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouth!

They may as well use terms like soft and fluffy and show images of white rabbits to sum up the work that volunteers do in our communities, because I am sure that is what they sometimes think!

Now I don’t know about you, but I rather think that the work of volunteers is all a little more important than that. Volunteers forge change. In our emergency services, they often deal with people on the worst day of their life. They teach new immigrants to read, they feed the homeless and befriend elderly residents who have no other support. They raise the funds that government fails to deliver for causes governments fail to support. They make it possible for children to play sport and for our environment to have some hope of coming through the global warming crisis.

Volunteers ARE the backbone of our country, yet why is it that very little has changed in the way our communities understand the impact of this work?

What’s even more alarming to me, are the amount of volunteer program managers I meet and provide training to who also come to the coordination of their volunteer programs with this same mindset. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe this is deliberate. Rather it is inherited from the way society more generally interprets the work of volunteering.

Until we truly put a value on the work of volunteers, we will never truly gain the resources we need for the sector to forge ahead. Funding will continue to come ‘with conditions’ and we will, as a whole, continue to take this vast resource for granted.

I am sure that prior to the industrial revolution, the discovery of oil was probably seen as nothing more than black goo that was more a hindrance than anything else. However once we realised the true worth of oil, it became a valuable commodity and a complete (and well resourced) industry was built around it.

I think we still have a way to go before the work of volunteers is truly valued in the way it should be, and that this is something all of us in this sector should continually be fighting for and educating about, because one thing that will certainly follow is a much more well resourced volunteer management movement.

So what do you think?

~ Am I being too harsh?

~ Do you agree or disagree?

~ Are there observations or experiences you can add to this debate?

~ Do you have ideas about how we can collectively address this issue?


  1. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 7:57 am - Reply

    Response posted on 12th June 2007 by Kate Munro, Community Education & Support Coordinator Lifeline Newcastle & Hunter, Australia

    Hi Andy – don’t you love reflecting!

    “Am I being too harsh”….NO NO NO -like you I go to quite a few conferences and events and spare me from another pollie or CEO rolled out to say how wonderful Volunteers are …..put your money where your mouth is I say and pay managers a real wage and spend a day with Volunteers doing the work

    “Do you agree or disagree”…. AGREE of course

    But – there have been some amazing changes in the last five years – Volunteers themselves are driving some of these changes by asking Why? and questioning how they are respected and valued -certificates and a cup of tea just don’t wash anymore!
    The challenge will always be how to find a common langauge that allows those people who fear Volunteers (ie them) to communicate with the rest of the community (ie us)
    Keep up the fight Andy – you are not alone

  2. ozvpm_andy March 27, 2012 at 7:56 am - Reply

    Response posted on 7th June 2007 by Sue Kobar, Coordinator of Volunteers, Nurse Maude Association, Christchurch, NZ

    I totally agree with you. Although I have seen improvement in the training for volunteer program managers (VPM) and recognition of volunteers there is still work to be done. All too frequently training dollars are used up by others in an organisation before consideration is given to the VPM. I believe that increased awareness of the huge contribution volunteers give locally, nationally & internationally begins with a well trained VPM who knows how to advocate volunteerism. If we learn to speak out about the work we do and the difference volunteers make in our organisation then volunteerism will become contagious and everyone will want to get involved; some may even consider a career in volunteer program management.

    I become very agitated when I attend a conference for VPMs and the ‘outside’ speaker refers to us as volunteers because this sends me a message that they don’t understand volunteer management is a paid profession. The second thing that frustrates me is when the outstanding work of volunteers is lessened because the speaker is not well informed. I’m sure it isn’t intentional, but there is a huge gap between their understanding of what volunteers do and the reality of what is happening in the community. If all volunteers ceased work tomorrow (a horrifying thought) life as we know it would fall apart. Volunteers are the heart of every country and deserve respect.

    While we are moving forward in community awareness there is still much to be done to show how much we value the work of volunteers. Although I try to share the specifics of how volunteers help our organisation, I know that I can do better. Their skills, experience, ability, kindness and energy inspire me daily.

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