A union for volunteers?

Andy Fryar March 1, 2008 4
A union for volunteers?


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

Over the past month, the Centre for Civil Society has launched an appeal through its regular newsletter to create a union for volunteers here in Australia. This is certainly not anything new and an old chestnut which has been raised before.

According to the article, a volunteer’s union is required because there is “ no national association or union of volunteers in Australia. There are plenty of funded councils on volunteering, but these represent organisations who use volunteers, not volunteers themselves.”

Let me begin by telling you why I think a national union of volunteers is not necessary.

Firstly there is a key inaccuracy in the above statement. It clearly suggests that ‘councils on volunteering’, which I assume refers to organisations like Volunteering Australia, state peak bodies and regional volunteer centres are only interested in representing the interests of volunteer involving organisations – and not volunteers themselves. Having been involved on volunteer centre Boards at all three levels over the years, I can assure you that the interests of volunteers are always paramount in the mission of those organisations acting as our peak and representative bodies.

The second reason I have difficulty with this concept is that it assumes volunteers are powerless – in fact quite the opposite is true. Volunteers are already a union movement by the very nature of the free choice they have. They vote with their feet everyday, and there are many glaring examples of traditional organisations struggling to attract new volunteer members because they have failed to properly advocate on behalf of their members (volunteers).

Thirdly, as with paid workers, I fail to understand how one body could ever be truly representative of all sectors representing volunteers. Some emergency service volunteer groups already have Associations who advocate on behalf of their volunteer members, and they do this well because the issues are very specific to the field of volunteering which they work in (volunteer fire fighting for example). How could one representative union group ever advocate on behalf of volunteers working in areas as diverse as hospices, the environment, disaster relief, education or a pet shelter? Like paid workers, the issues that confront volunteers are as different as chalk is from cheese.

Finally, if we truly understand the concept of sound volunteer management practices, volunteers who work in well supported volunteer involving organisations should already have a union representative looking after their interests! That person is commonly known as the Volunteer Coordinator or Volunteer Program Manager (VPM)! I say this because inherent in every volunteer management role should be the underlying function for a VPM to be the organisational representative who looks after the interests of it’s volunteer workforce – who ensures that injustices are not committed and that fair and reasonable ‘work’ conditions are applied to the work of volunteers.

So have we gone wrong?

Now while I may have outlined why, in an ideal world, such a volunteer’s union is unnecessary, the very fact that the call for such a group raises its head every few years does lead one to ask just where we may have gone wrong, or at the very least, what could we be doing better?

Canadian volunteerism commentator Linda Graff has for a number of years now been raising the issue of what she refers to as the ‘genetic engineering’ of the volunteer movement. Amongst other things, Linda argues that the established volunteer movement has over the years been sidetracked away from its core values – in pursuit of the funds required to keep its head above water.

Is there an argument to be answered that volunteer centres have lost sight of the need to advocate for volunteer issues? Is this increased when they are often in a position where to do so they may be ‘butting heads’ with the very government departments that fund them? Or have volunteer centres / peak bodies become such a slave to funding / service requirements that the core and rudimentary elements of advocating for the rights of volunteers has become merely a secondary issue?

These are certainly all good questions to debate and ponder.

The other issue I believe bears raising is the one I make above relating to the role of volunteer program managers in agencies that utilise volunteer support. Both VPMs and volunteer involving agencies need to take time to properly assess and understand the volunteer management role.

In far too many agencies, the Manager of Volunteers’ role is best understood (by management) simply as being someone who is able to ‘herd’ the volunteers together, keep them happy and have them jump through the hoops an agency requires of them! Instead, the VPM should be understood to be the volunteer management ‘expert’ in any agency, and be released accordingly to do everything they can to make volunteering experiences positive and rewarding ones for volunteers. The power in truly understanding this is that organisational management must be willing to hear what is wrong in their agencies and to make required changes accordingly.

Effective utilisation of volunteers lies in properly understanding that a volunteer workforce that is well equipped, have a voice and an investment in an agency’s mission will be the workforce who are most productive and loyal.

There is an opportunity here for a timely reminder of this fact. After all, if the VPM in your agency is not the person advocating for the rights of your volunteers – who will?

So do we need a union of volunteers? Absolutely not!

What we do need however is a timely reminder of some key and fundamental principles of what we are all about.

So let’s hear your thoughts:

• Do you think a union of volunteers is necessary? Why / Why Not?

• Do you agree with the points raised above?

• Disagree?

• What other thoughts would you like to add to this debate?

Let’s hear your thoughts!


  1. scott buckingham July 23, 2013 at 5:46 am - Reply

    As a retired professional emergency sevices employee I thought I would donate my spare time and skills to the NSW State Emergency Service. After two years as a volunteer I am seriously re-evaluating my position. In my opinion there seems to be a distinc culture of disregard by some paid members of Command to what is arguably the arms, legs and backbone of the organisation; ie, the folks in orange. During my service I have seen more than several instances of senior volunteers, including some former professionals who have risked life and limb free of charge, dismissed for minor infractions, some of which were later proven to be vexatious. There was no apology or reinstatement. Unlike a paid employee there is no such thing as three warnings before you are out and no Union representation. In small country towns, where dismissal occurs, there is also the spectre of humiliation, given everybody knows. Although I have never been the subject of dismissal I would caution anynone who is thinking of joining. That said, I am an advocate of Unions for any volunteer organisation.

  2. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:27 am - Reply

    Response posted on November 4, 2009 by anonymous, Australia

    Here’s an interesting twist – Instead of a volunteer union, how about instead of gas bagging, those who have the ear of ministers and Govt commence getting legislation changed so that volunteers can be afforded member rights of the unions governing their parent organisation.

    For example, the fire brigade unions, (state and fed) are not permitted to (or maybe don’t want to) accept as members from the volunteer ranks. The volunteers aren’t paid and therefore they can’t pay subscription fees and as such are dead wood or “Scabs”. If legislation were changed and incentives to represent volunteers were made to the unions we would have a voice.

    Many volunteer organisations (ie NSW RFSA and QLD RFBAQ) are so caught up with their own importance that they have lost touch with those they purport to represent. In fact, the RFBAQ CEO was asked at this years inaugural volunteer conference why, when we have 2 new areas, we are not permitted a representative for those two new areas. His response was that HE had enough to deal with with the current reps and that HE would not be increasing representation. Since then, the rep for the old area was pushed out and a new, as yet unseen rep installed making it even harder to get representation. When contacting reps on one occasion to try and get an answer to a question, I was told unofficially that the business conducted at association meetings was confidential and not to be disclosed.

    In NSW, there has been a splinter group known as the Volunteer Firefighters Association formed. This is a radical group who were fed up with the garbage and lack of leadership by the NSW RFSA. Unfortunately, they are a little too “in your face”.

    This could all be solved if Government made monetary grants to the Union Movement to represent volunteers who work alongside their paid counterparts. “Representation is relative to the agenda of those doing the representing”

  3. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:27 am - Reply

    Response posted on March 6 by Liz Scarfe, Manager Volunteering Resources, Villa Maria, Kew, Australia

    What a great topic – thank you. I have been thinking about writing a hot topic about volunteer strikes for awhile – maybe now is the time.

    While I agree with your general position I think there is a conflict of interest for Volunteer Managers to represent and advocate for the needs of their volunteers, within the organization who pays their salary. It can be very hard to advocate within your own organisation (rock the boat) when you feel at risk (perceived or real) for doing so (a huge mortgage, rising interest rates etc).

    The article by the Centre for a Civil Society mentions how volunteers are the “glue” of our community, but much of

    this “glue” is in informal volunteering, by people who don’t even self-identify as being a volunteer so I can’t see how a generic union could ever represent the “glue” of society. Obviously some of the more specialist adhesives benefit from more specialised representation, which is great of course.

    I don’t think a generic union is the answer at all – my stomach would turn to see some large body claim to speak on behalf of all volunteers but I think this is another symptom of the bureaucratizing of volunteering, which many volunteer managers are complicit in spreading without question.

    The article includes a link to submit your ideas/thoughts regarding the proposition so I would encourage people to voice their concerns in that forum. I hope VA, state peaks and AAVA will also make submissions.

  4. ozvpm_andy March 26, 2012 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Response posted on March 5 by Anne-Marie Traynor, Co-ordinator Volunteer Services, Calvary Health Care, Sydney

    I am in absolute agreement with all the points mentioned in this article.

    The Volunteer Manager is the one to ensure that the volunteers rights and responsibilites & those of the organisations for the volunteer are understood & implemented. A commitment to training and ongoing supervision and support mades a very happy workforce. Ensure they feel part of the team and not optional extras, make efforts to give them meaningful work which is then acknowledged & an expression of appreciation is given by Management. There is no need for unions who cannot represent volunteers at the coldface with the diversity of roles the volunteers provide.

    If there is a need for a union, then something is going wrong! We need to get back to the individual workplace and address the issues at hand.

    Thank you for your article and the support you provide to volunteer managers like myself. I also reinforce your words on the need to make time to network. I am in a very busy job however our group networks every quarter, I make this effort not just for myself but also to support the other Managers. It is a great opportunity to discuss issues and problem solve….. And just support each other.

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