Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Barriers to Volunteering

Sometimes I come across signs on shop windows or ads in papers stating “Volunteers Urgently required”! It’s a dramatic statement. Sometimes I see organizations bemoan the lack of volunteers. In some countries, and probably your own, volunteering numbers are declining.

One of the best ways that I can keep up with what’s happening in the volunteering world is having a good chat at the interview with potential volunteers. You can learn so much if you are doing your interviews right. Where I work we have the orientation and information session first. Thus prospective volunteers get a chance to look at the program and learn about it while not having to commit. Then if they are interested they come to our group interviews. There are wonderful dynamics to group interviews but that’s another blog for another day.

A couple of questions I like to ask are “what is your motivation for volunteering?” and “why did you choose this organization?” .There are many important questions that you should be asking at Volunteer interviews and these two are very important. Before I ask the motivation question I state that “ There are many motivations behind why volunteers volunteer here. Volunteers come here for a number of reasons and each reason is as legitimate as the other” And Wow! – that statement really seems to put people at ease. It’s as if they sigh with relief. Before I used to make that statement I would get over 90% of prospective volunteers saying “To give back to the community”. Now whilst giving back to the community is still a very strong factor behind motivation for volunteering for a lot of people the reality is that people volunteer for a myriad of reasons. My statement before my question now allows people to open up and state other reasons for volunteering such as meeting new people, gaining new skills, giving me an insight to my chosen career and or field of study, to have on my resume, to get a reference, to simply do something with my time or to gain confidence.

Basically I allow people to have a safe space for their motivation to volunteering. As long as there is a good outcome for the people they are there to help then their volunteering motivation is just a legitimate as any other.

So when you advertise with a message that says – “Do good for your community – volunteer with us today!” could you potentially be putting up a barrier to some people in the community who would make the most excellent of volunteers?

When you advertise that you are “Desperate for volunteers” is there not a fear that this might alienate a few who wonder why you are “desperate” to begin with.

One of the most amazing yet disheartening things I learn at interviews I conduct is the fact that so many volunteers try to volunteer at organizations but no one answers their query. Last week I asked a potential volunteer why she had picked our organization. She stated she had picked another close to her home but that after 3 emails and a telephone call where she had been informed that someone would get back to her, no one did and then she decided to try another.

Look, I’m a Volunteer Manager. I know the paperwork we can be buried under. I know the pressures of the job and I know that the odd applicant can go missed or unnoticed and then you come across the form or telephone or email message and go into “Service recovery” mode. But three emails and one call from a volunteer and no response?!!!

It’s not an isolated incident. Back to my question at interviews “Why did you pick this organization?” Over and over again…..”You were the only one to respond.”

Really? In 2015. When we have so many tools of communication at our disposal?

And I don’t gloat at interviews. The opposite in fact. I state that this is poor for all of us in the volunteering sector. And I usually have great conversations with the person about volunteerism!

Another huge barrier is lack of flexibility. I can’t count the number of university students who have told me at interviews that they didn't pursue volunteering at their first choice organization because they were told that they had to commit to 6 or 12 months of volunteering before been taken on.

Really? A commitment? A legal binding? On Volunteering? Interesting. Contracts? Please enlighten me folks if I am missing something here. What happens if a volunteer commits for 12 months and leaves after 3? Are they taken to court and sued? Fined? What?

These are just a couple of major barriers to volunteering. There are more and I will talk about them in part 2 of this post at a later date. But I have heard:

·         They are students and or young people and they can’t be relied upon!
·         They are unemployed and therefore will up and go when they get a job!
·         Their reasons are selfish!

So have you come across these or other types of barriers to volunteering? Share your experience here.

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 www.volunteering.org.uk 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!

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