Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The perception of volunteering and our role in maintaining or changing that.

Once a month I stand before a room of new employees. My mission: to talk about a volunteering service and volunteering in general. Before I commence I ask them to close their eyes and in their minds picture a hospital volunteer. Every time (and I’ve done this now for a few years) I get the same general consensus. The same description. And it is this - an elderly lady in a pink pinafore. I then explain that we have valuable volunteers in a certain age bracket (what’s old anyway these day? I think the word itself is outdated and meaningless) and then I go on to explain the diverse nature of volunteering in terms of age and demographics. They are often amazed. “Young “people volunteer? Who knew? And no pink pinafore?? Thank heavens for small mercies.

I talk a great deal about echo chambers in my blogs. We talk amongst ourselves about new and emerging trends in volunteering. We marvel at the kaleidoscope of colour that is volunteering. We love the diversity of volunteering. But I still wonder if the general public gets the true picture of volunteering. Despite some articles in the odd paper about volunteering, work being done by peak bodies to promote volunteering through National weeks etc I still sense the general public have a traditional view of the makeup of volunteering.

I am not sure that the volunteering sector helps itself sometimes by the public messages they send. Take IYV+10 for example. Stand on a street corner tomorrow and poll passersby on what it means to them? Perhaps they would venture a guess that it’s a new type of IPad or IPhone.

We get it. We know what it means. Well most of us. Do we really believe that the general public even recalls IYV in 2001?

If the general public is interested in doing some volunteering for the first time, perhaps in a hospital, I hope they don’t go to the Wikipedia entry on Hospital Volunteer.

Here are some gems from that entry.

“Hospital volunteers work without regular pay in a variety of health care settings, usually under the supervision of a nurse.”

Yikes! Volunteers work without regular pay? And busy nurses just got a lot busier.

“A few hospitals ask their volunteers to help out with janitorial duties, like cleaning beds. Other "advanced volunteers" include patient-care liaisons and volunteer orderlies. These volunteers must operate on the orders of a nurse or a physician and are given special training to permit them to work with patients.”

Advanced volunteers? Orders?

“Some hospitals keep all their volunteers in one place (a dispersal unit)”

The basement? Fridge?

“Some volunteers (particularly "advanced volunteers" described above) will wear scrubs”

Those Advanced volunteers get all the benefits!

Wikipedia is well read. Are peak bodies for volunteering happy with the image of volunteering as represented on sites such as wikipedia? Are they happy with the article on “Volunteering”? Have they checked out the one on ‘Virtual volunteering”? Is it important that they contribute to these? Is it their role? Is it ours in Volunteer management?


  1. Hey DJ.....whos gonna change that dreadful wiki entry?
    And who the heck wrote it?????

  2. I get flack for responding to corporate definitions of volunteering -- someone from the for-profit world blogs or posts to an online discussion group about how nonprofits involve volunteers (or don't) and how they want to change that, and I respond. Their post is full of misconceptions about volunteering -- just as you've noted above, DJ. But I'm the only one responding, at least in public -- other volunteer management advocates don't, complaining amongst themselves but not to the person promoting the misconceptions about volunteers, not on the blog or the discussion group. And the result: *I* get branded a trouble maker! As you say, we volunteer management advocates are spending lots of time in the echo chamber, talking to each other about this or that corporate or government report or list of recommendations about volunteerism that drives us crazy with its misinformation, but how many people actually write the authors and say, "Hey, hold the phone -- I appreciate your thoughts, but here's a reality check..."? Or post online, in the comments section saying in public, however diplomatically, what we say to each other about the latest volunteerism campaign? The Wikipedia entry for hospital volunteers is outrageous, indeed -- will you, or anyone else, go on and rewrite it? I've asked a challenging question on the LinkedIn Nonprofits section about both IYV+10 and the European Year of Volunteers -- and the silence is *deafening*. If more of us spoke out, volunteer management and volunteer engagement would have a far, far different profile among the general public, including the corporate sector! Thanks for your blog, DJ -- great stuff!

  3. Right on DJ! Academia sternly advises me to avoid referencing or quoting Wikipaedia, but there it is, top on the list of a Google search and an entrée to whatever quick-fix memory-jogger we want. That’s the trouble, as you have pointed out – we are all blinkered by what is beholden in our own eyes. Perception and Prejudice come before Reason and Truth in the dictionary. So the hurdles to get due recognition of volunteering and Management of Volunteers just get a bit higher. I hope you are already penning a replacement version for Wikipaedia’s article. I’ll help, if you want, and have a couple of good Kiwi sources for quotes or verification.

  4. Thanks for the reply Martin. Perhaps Shindig and I will re write it? See above! I dont know who wrote the original entry.

  5. Hi Jayne

    Thank you so much for taking the time to pen that response. It’s a good thing you wear a strong “Flack” Jacket! I don’t think the issue is just about corporate definitions of volunteering. I think it’s about how we in the volunteering sector continue with flat earth definitions and ignore what’s happening on the ground. Your reply has encouraged me to attempt editing some wikipedia entries. And I am delighted to see that others are offering to help too.

  6. Thank you Shindig. "Perception and Prejudice come before Reason and Truth in the dictionary." what a gem of a line. Time permitting - a replacement article is on the line. It would be great to get a few of us onto that project. and then the entry on volunteering...and then create an entry on volunteer manaagement......great projects for volunteers aligned with professional bodies for volunteer management perhaps?

  7. Like Jayne says - speaking out is what we have to do. Well, it's the mark of a true professional in my book. 'If you are not part of the solution then you are part of the problem,' a slogan popular with social work students in my day, and still very relevant. In New Zealand we have made a small start on speaking out, or at least speaking to people in enlightening terms, and found a good reception. So let's get moving on rewriting Wikipaedia in the way entries on volunteering and managing volunteers should have been done in the first place!

  8. BTW re IVY+10 should be changed ASAP. OK. LOL.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.


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