HOT TOPIC – OCTOBER / NOVEMBER 2008
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
OzVPM has just finished co-hosting the 1st Asia Pacific Volunteer Leadership conference in Honolulu, Hawaii.
While the entire conference was a really great experience, the closing ceremony particularly stands out in my mind because unlike so many conferences I attend back in Australia, where we try and ‘hype’ delegates up to ‘go forth and conquer’ as they leave the event, the closing ceremony in Hawaii was conducted with much more of a reflective tone – something I am told is much more common for that region.
The final session I refer to was conducted by Dr Art-Ong Jumsai Na Ayudhya from Thailand, who was a part of the conference’s ‘six billion paths to peace’ stream. His final and very traditional Thai candle lighting ceremony really struck a chord with me. In this ceremony, three key conference delegates were invited to go to the front of the auditorium and light a candle each. In addition, each delegate in the room had also been given a small candle. The hall lights were dimmed and starting with the three lit candles at the front of the room, each person with a lit candle passed on their light to another, until before we knew it, the entire room was alight with the small light each of us was holding.
It was a powerful demonstration of the principal that alone we are just one small voice, but that together, if we work cooperatively, we can set the world ablaze! It also prompted me to write this month’s Hot Topic!
“I have a dream…” began Martin Luther in his historic speech about the power of people of different creeds working side by side. Well I have a dream too, one which still feels almost impossible in the political landscape which is the Australian volunteerism movement. It stems from my observations both in Australia and further abroad, that the politicising, back biting, mistrust, jockeying for position and general competitiveness of our sector remains the biggest hurdle to us ever moving volunteerism ahead in any constructive manner – what’s more, I believe it threatens to tear us apart unless we come to terms with this fast!
I am quite sure that even publishing this Hot Topic will earn me a few less friends, but it needs to be said that after more than two decades in this game it appears that a cooperative approach is still viewed with suspicion by many, which in turn never allows us to move forward.
To be even more blunt, allow me to state what I believe are several key reasons for this:
• The high turnover rate in our sector is like no other industry and does not allow for relationships to develop
• There remains a continual recruitment of people into volunteerism who don’t understand volunteerism! If you owned a garage you would not employ someone to be a mechanic who did not understand their way around an engine, yet I am constantly baffled to see volunteer involving agencies, including volunteer centres and government departments for volunteering, employing individuals who don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of our core business
• Associated with both of the above is a lack of any clear career path in our sector.
• The financial constraints our sector constantly faces and the inherent competitiveness which this funding often forces within the sector is a huge factor
• An unwillingness to acknowledge the various strengths and weaknesses which those of us in the sector already possess
• A lack of understanding about the value of working co-operatively
• An inability to think outside of the square
Let me take this argument one step further.
All too often I believe that the volunteerism sector defines itself (and is viewed by others) far too narrowly. Volunteer Centres, peak bodies and government agencies put themselves – and are viewed – as having to be ‘front and centre’ of the volunteering world. Once positioned as ‘core’ or ‘lead’ agencies they then have a need to find and have all the answers about volunteering. On the surface this would make some sense – yes?
Well my observations over many years are that trying to be ‘all things to all people’ actually weakens any agency, whether it be in volunteerism or any other sphere of life.
In volunteering, the effect of this is that these lead agencies can soon lose sight of why they exist in the first place, who they seek to serve and just what their core business is. Instead, attention is focused on seeking better ways of funding themselves to the point that the agency changes course and steers in another direction. Government agencies and funders in turn become significant and major players in this cycle, often at the expense of other very important members of the sector – namely volunteer managers, professional Associations, trainers, consultants, educators, researchers and academics. The result is that this body of additional knowledge, spheres of influence and complimentary support often becomes merely a secondary set of players in the scheme of things.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not on a witch hunt against volunteer centres or govt departments here as I believe all of us working in this field need to spend time redefining our own strengths and weaknesses to find better ways of collaborating. I am also not suggesting this pattern is true of each and every agency I have met. There are indeed some fine examples of volunteer centres and lead agencies around the world who are focussing on their strengths and collaborating with others in the sector to achieve maximum results for their volunteering community.
For instance in Singapore, the National Centre of Volunteering and Philanthropy have delegated the task of training volunteer managers across to MOVE, Singapore’s professional Association for volunteer managers. In the UK, Volunteering England recently signed an MOU with their professional Association AVM. Yet here in Australia we struggle to make these same connections.
I believe it is only when we truly understand and utilise the scope of information and knowledge we all bring to the table that we will begin to move forward as a whole.
Let me give you an example. While in Hawaii I had a few quiet beers with a guy called Tony Goodrow. Tony is the creator of a volunteer management software system in North America and CEO of that same company. Not someone you would automatically assume to be part of the volunteer movement right? Well the discussion I had with Tony about trends and issues in our field transcend the discussions I would have with 98% of other people in the sector.
The first thing that struck me is how sad it was that a software specialist knew so much more about how to manage volunteer programs than most people doing the job! The second thought I had was why don’t we refer to those on the periphery of our sector, people like Tony, more often to seek alternate views on how volunteerism issues could be improved?
Collaborating is not new – and what’s more it is not difficult.
It requires us to think broadly and approach each new opportunity with a sense of excitement and anticipation rather than from an angle of suspicion and fear.
Here are some additional challenges and opportunities to embrace the sector as a whole:
• Why do so many VPM’s complain about the lack of professionalism in the sector – yet so few bother to take the time and join AAVA? • Why don’t our national professional Associations make more efforts to band together and collaborate internationally?
• Why is it often considered ‘immoral’ that ‘for profit’ trainers, consultants, researchers and companies make a living from volunteerism (and are often excluded), when our volunteer centres and government offices for volunteering are filled with people doing exactly the same thing? • Why do government departments continually ‘reinvent the wheel’ instead of relying on and better funding our existing infrastructure, including volunteer centres?
Like the candles in that Hawaiian conference room, if we learnt to be less threatened and work cooperatively with one another, we too can light up our societies with new and exciting ways – and break the cycles of competitiveness once and for all.
Because unless we all take some responsibility for doing this, our sector will only continue to become more divided and ultimately weaker
The challenge is set!
• What are you going to do about it?
• What other thoughts would you like to add to this debate?