Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Volunteer Management: Be careful what you wish for!

Have been watching the Energize Hot Topic with interest this month. Link to the site is on the right hand side of this page. I always encourage readers of this blog to have a look at the Hot Topics both on Energize and the OzVPM sites. For Volunteer Management to move forward we need to engage with these hot topics. By engaging, I mean more than just reading. When I was President of AAVA some years back I used to constantly encourage the board to respond to Hot Topics. I believed then as I believe now that Professional Associations for Volunteer managers should be taking every opportunity to respond to issues of the day.

Anyway, back to the Energize Hot topic. In this months topic Susan J Ellis explores some of the issues of vocabulary and labelling, pointing out that how someone defines the core word of our field often has strong impact on some critical, practical matters.

It was in fact a couple of responses to this Hot Topic that got me in turn responding. I simply had to respond to the people who gave their opinion on what a “True Volunteer” was.

I have come across in the last 12 months some people within our sector talking about “True Volunteering” and “Pure Volunteering”. Some have a view that volunteering should be solely altruistic. Some say there should be absolutely no tangible benefit to the volunteer themselves. I once came across an organisation that wouldn’t take on job seekers as volunteers simply because they would up and go as soon as they got a job! Some people hold the view that if you volunteer for selfish reasons it not volunteering in its truest essence! Humbug!

I worry when people judge the motivation of people who volunteer. Ask their motivation by all means. Plan your program accordingly. Use people’s motivations for research and study but judge it? Please no!

If someone comes to your organisation and they want to volunteer their time simply to have volunteering on their resume or to utilise volunteering as a stepping stone into paid employment do you have a problem with this? I don’t.

Do you see a volunteer as “less true” if they aren’t volunteering for altruistic reasons? I don’t.

I believe that we get into risky territory when we begin to use the language of “True volunteer”. I know plenty of people volunteering who utilise the experience they get as a stepping stone into employment or further study. I see their motivation to be different to other people motivations and I certainly see them as true volunteers. I know people who volunteer to purely escape social isolation. Should we be ever suggesting that they are not ‘True Volunteers”? I know people who are volunteering to add to their resume. I know people who are volunteering for a myriad amount of reasons. To me they are all volunteers. And they are all doing volunteering that, at the end of the day, is of benefit to the community.

What dangerous road do we go down if we start judging peoples motivation for volunteering? Do we hold separate recognition events for our volunteers – one for the “True Volunteers” and the other for the…what do we call them then….the “false Volunteers?” Do we provide a special training course for Volunteer Managers to decipher the “trueness” of volunteer applicants?

This is serious. There is a lot of debate going on about the definitions of volunteering at the moment; on this site, on blogs, at the UN and at the level of peak bodies. I urge caution as we move forward. I ask who do we risk alienating when we come up with our concrete definitions. On what basis do we come up with definitions? Are they guided by tradition, personal viewpoints, religion or morals? Whose?

What about volunteers who are excluded because of concrete definitions. Currently the peak body for volunteering in Australia states that volunteering only exists in the Not for Profit sector. They state this as though it is a fact. It is not. Hundreds if not thousands of people volunteer for private nursing homes and hospitals for example. If ones concrete statements are philosophical beliefs then name them as such. Don’t mistake or confuse them with facts.

There are many people out there in our communities doing work that benefits the communities. They see themselves as volunteers. We have no right, absolutely none, to judge their motivation… period!

So let’s be more careful as we move to define something that is so fluid and open. Let’s be careful what we wish for lest we alienate volunteers in our communities.


  1. I worry for Volunteering Australia that the position that pure volunteering only occurs in Not for profit spaces has become dogma. Once solidified as a core belief, it cannot be challenged or questioned. This would seem to be the place they have got to. Frankly, this sadly shows they don't understand volunteering while claiming to represent it. Perhaps this is because the leadership have never run a volunteer program themselves?

  2. Why would it matter what the motivation is? How would that even be determined? What is the motivation of the volunteer coordinator to be in their position? A debate over motivation of a volunteer seems like a waste of energy. Energy that could be spent on educating supervisors, institutions, governments, etc. about what volunteering in general is all about and how we can improve the experience for those who volunteer and the place they are assisting.

  3. Why are we worrying about definitions and/or motivations at this time? The flurry of blogs and hot topics and SWVR reports are all reaching pretty much the same conclusions:
    - Put a boundary around volunteering and you put volunteers, and their managers, in a straitjacket with no wriggle room.
    - 'Volunteering' is a word that covers so many scenarios it will always mean different things to different people.
    - We argue there are 'horses for courses', and that 'one size does not fit all'.
    What I come back to over and over again is the understanding of volunteering - what it means to the organisation, to the individual, and most importantly to those who run the volunteer programmes. Knowing what we mean in our particular context is much more important.

  4. Thanks for the comment Martin. It is a worry to a degree. But I sense the Volunteer Management community as well as volunteerism itself is just getting on with things. What is a worry is the professional association for Volunteer Management not publically having a say of this and other matters.

    As far as VA is concerned though we can only hope for some progressive thought in the New Year. According to their latest newsletter one of their visions for next year is -“Review of Volunteering Australia’s Foundation Document ‘Definition and Principles of Volunteering’ -Volunteering Australia’s Foundation Policies remain relevant to contemporary practice, research and policy about volunteering in Australia.”

  5. Great comment @ GTO Blog ! I have been thinking along the same lines. Do we extend the “True volunteer” beliefs to question the motivation of volunteer coordinators and managers now? How often have you heard some in the filed say “ well I am not in this for the money”. Which is fine and noble and I am sure heartfelt. But how do we judge the person who wants to be at the peak of his or her profession, who wants to have a satisfying career in how they effect change in community and how they earn! Shock horror! Is it ok to aspire to pay the best volunteer managers the best wages! Doesn’t the old adage of paying peanuts etc. not apply in our sector? Or is it acceptable to pay peanuts because it’s “just looking after the vollies”?

  6. Thanks Shindig! You have really hit the nail on the head with your comments. You are so right about boundaries and straitjackets.
    You ask “Why are we worrying about definitions and/or motivations at this time?” Let me give you one answer to that. One example. Peak body definitions impact on people’s lives in real ways. Here’s how it impacts on some volunteers when we go with the concrete belief that volunteering only exists in the Not for Profit sector

    •Lack of recognition
    •Denial of access to contribution
    •Denial of opportunities to be awarded for their volunteering effort
    •Hearing that they don’t exist


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