HOT TOPIC – FEBRUARY / MARCH 2010
By Guest Hot Topic writer Catherine (Cat) Williams
Introductory note from OzVPM Director Andy Fryar:
This month I am pleased to introduce OzVPM Hot Topic readers to a new contributor in our field, Catherine (Cat) Williams. Cat has been gaining some notice for presentations she has been making around the Brisbane area about Volunteer Management, and as a member of Generation Y, I was keen to invite Cat to contribute some ‘first hand’ thoughts and challenges about how to engage younger volunteers
Catherine is the cofounder of a new youth empowerment campaign, ‘Enough Said’. She has been the Campaigns Manager for the Oaktree Foundation’s Queensland branch. The Oaktree Foundation is Australia’s first and largest entirely youth-run aid and development organisation.
Catherine coordinated Queensland’s section of national campaigns, as well as hosting advocacy and leadership events, such as the Leaders for Change Conference at Parliament House. Her previous experience includes domestic and international experience in the humanitarian sector, including most recently working as volunteer coordinator with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Syria, and extensive facilitation experience through previous volunteer management, campaigning and executive roles.
Walking the talk is a simple twist on an age-old adage, yet its familiarity belies its radical nature. If everyone acted upon their words, fundamental change would ensue.
Imagine the change in our sector if we actually started taking practical actions to implement some of the new thinking around youth engagement. Instead, at the moment I feel the sector is engaging in what I call youth-washing as it appears that there is a dearth of meaningful action which applies to this new thinking.
This lack of substantial change is undermining our ability to effectively capture a new generation, which reduces the dynamism in the volunteering sector.
My generation, the infamous Gen Y, have been poked, prodded and analysed to death and new management strategies abound. It has been widely acknowledged that young people conceptualise society and our role in it very differently to previous generations, because the contours of our lives are vastly different. In this way, we have a different concept of volunteering and how we incorporate it in our lives.
Yet despite this knowledge and the expressed wish to engage Gen Y, I still feel that many managers are reluctant to accept young people.
Whilst not being cynical enough to assign malign intentions or harp on about bogus intergenerational conspiracies; I generally find one of two attitudes present in volunteer managers.
The first group desires to contain young people rather than wishing to harness their skills and energy. It appears as though youth are wanted only because they are needed for future ‘viability’, rather than being wanted for their intrinsic value.
The second group contains people who appear to genuinely want to connect with young people but are overwhelmed by the depth of change required to create meaningful engagement. This often results in half-hearted attempts to connect with youth, but without transforming incumbent structures and traditional thinking.
On the whole, these two groups are ‘talking the talk’ but are stifled by their own agendas and history and this has been masking the true nature of the sector’s relationship with Gen Y. This is now becoming glaringly evident with the ever-widening chasm between theoretical knowledge on one side and a sincere commitment to practical application on the other.
Regardless of which group you sit in, this results in youth-washing. This is the superficial application of youth-orientated initiatives which are designed to appeal to the younger generation whilst leaving the traditional thinking and practices of volunteer management untouched. If this trend continues unabated, it will further the rift between dynamic youth-based volunteer initiatives and traditional practices, thereby undermining the overall effectiveness of the sector in coming years.
My aim here is not to disparage traditional thinking and processes; they have and are continuing to be advantageous in many instances. However survival is about adaptation, and at the moment the sector is only pretending to adapt whilst clinging tenaciously to the past.
The point is not to dogmatically demand a new approach be taken, but it is about calling on all of us to take an honest look at ourselves, as a sector to assess our own motives, inhibitions, goals and track record in achieving desired outcomes.
- Are we clinging to the past or are we embracing a new generation?
- Are we seeking genuine engagement or are we recruiting simply to survive?
- Are we willing to make changes to remain current to a new generation or are we a ‘one-method kinda gal’, wedded to our practices and knowledge until death-do-us-part?
Let’s hear what you think