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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Article of mine on I-volunteer.org.uk

Out of the cocoon and educate!


For some years now I have been advocating to the Volunteer Management sector that we are responsible for educating others about what we do and why we exist! By others I mean, the community at large, other sectors and Government. We sometimes bemoan the fact that some people don’t understand our roles and I’ve argued that we need to actively get out there and inform them and not wait for them to come to us with the question “so what exactly is Volunteer Management?”.
This is why I am a strong supporter of International Volunteer Managers’ Day. Though some of my colleagues are less inclined to support what they misperceive as “ volunteer manager pat on the back and self praise is no praise day” I see the day as a great instrument that can be used to educate people about the awesome field I find myself in!
But recently I’ve encountered a phenomenon that slightly worries me and makes me wonder if I have been channeling too much energy into advocating for the recognition of volunteer management. I wonder too, to use an old cliché, that if in some ways we are putting the cart before the horse.
Does the community at large understand volunteering? Do we as a volunteer management sector assume that they do?
We spend a lot of our time debating the definitions of volunteering. We get very excited talking about all types of volunteering be it episodic, strategic, virtual, micro, traditional, emerging trends etc. All well and good. As a sector we are fairly informed and as coordinators and managers we are rather up to speed and adaptable as well as flexible to change. After all, we have the world of knowledge at our fingertips. Resources are a plenty and there is no shortage of information on volunteer management out there.But are we too warm and comfortable within our cocoon?
What if Volunteering isn’t really understood by society at large? I am not saying that this is the case and I have no hard and conclusive evidence to back up such a claim but some recent events have stirred my curiosity and have at least prompted the question in my own mind.
There is a heap of literature out there about volunteering. Or is there? Google volunteering and you will get over 14 million hits. But a lot of this information is the “how to” and “where to” and “join us” of volunteering. Of course people have written papers on the subject of volunteering, academics have explored and investigated volunteering, peak bodies and national bodies encourage volunteering and some provide education on volunteering. We as volunteer managers or coordinators read up on trends in volunteering. Actually we are at the coalface and are the first to discover these trends emerging in many instances!
And yes – millions of people in hundreds of nations do some volunteering. But many millions more don’t! And we have to acknowledge that even a percentage of society does not support volunteering at all and in fact think its wrong!! I once spent an entire evening arguing with someone the case for volunteering! This person absolutely was anti volunteering in all its forms and was able to articulate his case quite intelligently; a fact I must acknowledge even though I disagreed with him wholly!
This leads me to the recent experiences that got me thinking about volunteering. Every month I or the volunteer coordinator at my workplace does a presentation on volunteering for new staff at their orientation day. We not only talk about what volunteers do at our agency but we talk a little about volunteering in general quoting some facts and figures along the way. We also do a little quiz. A few points to note:
The majority of people are amazed by the number of people who volunteer in our society.
Most people are shocked when they are informed about the age groups who do the most volunteering
When asked to close their eyes and picture a volunteer and recount to us their perception most will say “a retired lady, in her seventies”
Most are astounded to discover that a large proportion of our volunteering team is under 25.
Since we have been doing this style of presentation where we involve the staff we have been getting the same answers and the same looks of shock month after month for a year.
I have had the pleasure of volunteering my time over the last year to visit various community groups and organisations and present on volunteering. The reactions have been the same. Young people volunteering in such numbers? Never! Virtual volunteering? What the dickens is that? For the purpose of this post I will ignore another statement I hear often – “volunteer manager? Do you get paid for that?”. That comes back to education on volunteer management.
Now I expect volunteer centre’s and peak bodies to argue that they work hard to educate the community on volunteering and I certainly won’t disagree with them on that.
But I am wondering if we have a role to play on educating society about volunteering. As a volunteer management sector can it be argued that in order for us to be more rounded do we need to incorporate playing the roll of educating on volunteering when and where we can. Can we find the time to volunteer to do such a role and cannot such a role have the potential to strengthen our own sector as it makes us more visual and sees us taking a lead role in the promotion of volunteerism! A win-win situation?

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