Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Volunteering Definitions?

Volunteering Australia is currently reviewing the definition of volunteering.

On her blog page "Abundant Contibutioon" Adrienne Picone writes: " VA’s commitment to reviewing the definition of volunteering is being project managed by Volunteering Tasmania in partnership with all of the volunteering State and Territory Peaks and is both timely and reassuring. It may be that after we have the review that the end result will be similar or even the same as what we have now."

Who is in the Volunteering Family and who is out?

The following is an article I wrote for a Volunteering England Newsletter a few years back. I have edited it slightly and am reposting here to stimulate discussion

As manager of a volunteer service in the largest private hospital in Australia this current hot topic obviously holds a great interest to me. At the same time I have viewed it objectively.


I have a huge passion for volunteerism. I have been a volunteer for many years as well as managing volunteers for close on 18 years. I continue to donate my time to address various community groups about the powerful movement that I believe volunteering to be and frequently research the area.  In this way I keep abreast of emerging trends.


There was a time I considered leaving the sector due to what I perceived as a lack of recognition for volunteer managers and paucity of resources.  Happily for me I attended the “Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management” in Canberra and met a group of like minded people who saw themselves as professionals, and it was here that I discovered that Volunteer Managers had their own professional association!  So rather than quit the sector I returned to my job revitalised and with a new and positive vision for my career. I joined our professional association, AAVA (Now AAMOV) and in fact become its president in 2006. I continue to advocate for Volunteer Managers in many settings and genuinely hope that in some way I am contributing to the advancement of our sector.


I mention the above to emphasise that my argument here is not solely based on the fact that I am employed in the private sector. I am convinced that my argument would be the same had my career journey taken a different route and I had stayed in the not for profit sector.  Due to my experience in both, I am able I think, to add a unique perspective to what has become an ongoing debate. After all, you will not find many Volunteer Managers in private settings…yet!


I believe that volunteering in a private setting is ok provided it is aptly defined.  It seems that definition has added complexity to the private/public discussion and that clarification is needed.  Some countries have adopted their own definition of volunteering for example, Volunteering England once stated;


“any activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or someone (individuals or groups) other than, or in addition to, close relatives. Central to this definition is the fact that volunteering must be a choice freely made by each individual. This can include formal activity undertaken through public, private and voluntary organisations as well as informal community participation.”


The ‘Compact Code of Good Practice on Volunteering’ (2008) cited at contains a short definition of volunteering as


“an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives…and  includes formal activity undertaken through public, private and voluntary organisations as well as informal community participation and campaigning.”


In 2001, The United Nations (UN) adopted specific criteria to distinguish volunteering from other forms of behaviour that may superficially resemble it. According to the UN volunteering:


·         Is not to be undertaken primarily for financial gain

·         Is undertaken of one’s own free will; and

·         Brings benefit to a third party as well as to the people who volunteer .


Whereas Volunteering Australia (VA) states that formal volunteering is an activity which takes place in not-for-profit organisations or projects. It goes on to state in its definitions and principles of volunteering that “Volunteering is an activity performed in the not for profit sector only.”  I submit that this is incongruent with another of its principles, that Volunteering is always a matter of choice.


Clearly the positions quoted above are at odds and I intend to address them further in this article. However I am now happy to say that VA is at least actively looking at this definition and opening it up for discussion.


With respect to private sector volunteering, my organisation’s history is interesting.  Built in 1942, the hospital where I work was a public hospital until it was privatised in 1995. The existing volunteer team were initially worried that such a takeover may lead to disbandment. However, the new management enthusiastically embraced the work of the volunteers and continues to encourage and support their valuable contribution.


The Program  


Due to many factors including more calls for volunteering opportunities, the expansion of the hospital and to ensure proper systems were in place to support the 50 volunteers, the hospital engaged a full time paid Volunteer Manager for the first time in 2006. Volunteer Services at the Hospital have grown enormously and now utilizes the skills of 2 full time staff and close on 400 volunteers.


In my job interview for this position I was impressed by the organisation’s rationale for utilising volunteers. Extending care to the patient was a big theme. In turn they trusted me to set up a program that ensured volunteers were a recognised and important part of the team at the hospital. This reflects the philosophy of all ethical volunteering organisations that volunteers must be valued to the same degree as salaried staff. With my own department I am part of the management team at the hospital. I am also seen as the “expert’ on volunteering matters.


  •  As the program has grown, management has supported that growth with extra resources and support. My professional development in volunteer management has also been supported and encouraged by the hospital. Executive met with a representative body of volunteers monthly and they also are consulted on the development of our programs.. Staff/Volunteer relationships are excellent according to evaluation data and reports. Of course we ensure that there are clear demarcation lines between volunteer activities and paid positions and as a result our relationship with the union representatives is exemplary. The central aim of the program at our organisation is that volunteers are committed to the good of the patient. 

 Volunteer activities

Our high retention rate for volunteers is due primarily to the interesting and meaningful activities they are given, combined with the recognition they receive from the hospital.  I have selected a few points from our programme to give a flavour of our setting:


  • all requests for volunteering activity are approved and distributed only by the volunteer management team.

  • volunteers provide companionship and support to patients, their families and friends.

  • volunteers visit patients daily, escort people around the hospital, give hand and foot massage and provide information desk services as well as a JP service.

  •  specially trained volunteers work


    • in our dementia unit assisting patients through therapy activities

    • as Cancer Care Volunteers who provide great empathy and understanding to our cancer patients.

    • as Chaplains providing for the spiritual needs of our patients.
The above is only a brief account of what the volunteers do.

Our programme has been so successful that we have been contacted by public and private hospitals seeking assistance with the setting up of their volunteer programmes. We have also achieved state and national awards for our innovative volunteer programs.

As I have said, I don’t discriminate when it comes to the private or public sector and I can’t help but wonder why the issue arises in the definition of volunteering.  The current VA definition by Volunteering Australia for instance, is adamant in its claim that

“volunteering is an activity performed in the not-for-profit  sector only.” That is to say it does not exist in the private sector.  This is clearly incorrect. The close on 400 volunteers in my organisation are no figment of my imagination. Nor can that be said of several private hospitals throughout Australia and for example the Brisbane International Airport which is privately managed and whose volunteers:


  • Meet and greet people

  • Give directions and answer queries

  • Give visitors a warm welcome to our beautiful city
Many people also see the value in volunteers in private settings such as hospitals and nursing homes where they appreciate their empathy, their caring and their ability to spend quality time with patients easing their isolation and reassuring them at a time of anxiety.

Those who oppose volunteers in the private sector seem to think that these activities and services should only be available  patients in a public setting. I don’t agree for to do so would be to fly in the face of the existence of altruism.  All of our volunteers came to us because they do not discriminate between private and public patients.  Most only see people in need of their services.

Another important point to raise is the volunteers themselves and their views on volunteering in a private setting. When I commenced working for this organisation one of the first decisions I made was to include the history of the hospital in the interview process and to inform all applicants that this was a privately owned hospital.  We have conducted roughly 700 volunteer interviews since we commenced the program. Of that number, one person decided not to proceed with volunteering on the basis that it was in a private setting. One! And that person had every right not to proceed if that was their individual philosophy. How can we even begin to contemplate denying the other 399 people their right to volunteer at this organisation or to say to them that volunteering takes place only in not for profit organisations.

People may up to now agree with my argument that volunteering in certain private settings may be ok but may be asking where exactly do we draw the line. I believe that discussion is another debate in itself for another day.


Another quick analogy I would like to make is this. Take the nursing profession. These people are in the business of care. Their service is critical to the health and safety of patients. Does society judge them on whether they work for public or private hospitals? Ah, you might say, this is different because they are paid. If we take this viewpoint then I say we demean volunteering itself because we are saying it is OK for volunteers to give service in the not-for-profit area but not the private area when it is their choice.

Finally I issue a warning on what may happen if we continue to ignore that this type of volunteering activity takes place or if we form stringent views that it should never take place. I believe that people will continue to look for volunteering opportunities at their local hospital, nursing home or indeed airport! If we shun or condemn this activity we will discourage good volunteer management practice at these facilities. Good volunteer management practice can ensure that volunteers are treated with respect and receive appropriate insurance training and orientation. Good volunteer management practice can ensure that volunteers are utilised appropriately and not for cost cutting. Professional well trained Volunteer Managers can ensure that everything pertaining to volunteering is done in the right way and for the right reasons.

I was once accused by a colleague of joining “The Dark side”.  I am glad to have had an opportunity to broaden my horizons and to shine a light on the reality of volunteering in a private setting!


  1. A thoughtful blog with well-made points about involvement of volunteers in the private sector. My perspective is that of the volunteer - if this is what I want to do, why not?

    Volunteer motivation is a complex area, but younger volunteers wanting relevant experience to enhance career prospects, or older volunteers with experience in this sector may be a perfect fit for the organisation and for themselves.

    Could we extend this principle to include those whose free choice extends to work experience in a supermarket or an internship with a firm of accountants within the field of volunteering?

    1. Thanks for your response chuffinghog! Your questions at the end are very interesting and valid. I am not too sure about your supermarket though. I think this scenario would be open to exploitation. I also think that there may be some Labor laws around it. I understand people wanting to get work experience. After all one barrier to gaining work is not having experience. I once did it many many moons ago. worked a few nights for no pay and ended up leaving and I didn't like the role. Yep - I felt exploited. So there is that. The bigger question I suppose is "Is volunteering always a free choice?" lots of debate to come I am sure. And I welcome all viewpoints. Thanks for yours. Internship? Well that's a different story that should deserve a blog post all on its own!! :-)

  2. Very thoughtful post, DJ. Thank you. We have a whole area of our A-Z Volunteer Management Library at Energize, Inc. devoted to resources that discuss the "Definitions of Volunteer" at There's also a "map" of the volunteer world at and some thoughts on "How We Define "Volunteer" for Energize...and What Is Not Volunteering to Us" at

    The important thing is not that we all have to agree, but that we keep the conversation going!


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