I’m sat writing this article on 11 June 2019. My weather app tells me it feels like six degrees celsius outside (42.8F). It’s pouring with rain and blowing a howling gale.

On British summer days like this I wish there was an element of truth when I say to people “If I had £1 for every time I’ve heard someone ask if we should call volunteering something different…”. If it were true then, after 25 years in volunteer management, my view wouldn’t be of rainy England but something like this…

View of a beach from a cabana on a sunny day
View of a beach from a cabana on a sunny day

Yes, we’re still we having the same old debate. If we called volunteering something else wouldn’t it make it more attractive to non-volunteers? Wouldn’t it sound cooler and sexier, like GamesMakers did at the 2012 Olympics?

My answer is no.

Consider the term social action. This gets bandied about all the time here in the UK, especially in regard to young people. In the report into full-time social action for young people that was published in February 2018, social action was defined as being:

“…distinct from work experience and volunteering. It is about creating lasting social change on big issues that matter to young people and their communities. It can be used to address inequalities, challenge racism, and improve women’s rights.”

As I noted at the time:

”Because volunteers have never created lasting social change (HIV / AIDS awareness in the 1980s). Because volunteers have never addressed big issues that matter (e.g. climate change and the environment). Because volunteers have never tackled inequality, challenged racism or improved women’s rights.“

Calling volunteering something different doesn’t solve a problem, it creates new ones. Every time we come up with a different term for volunteering we have to spend time, effort and energy explaining what it is so people understand it.

Look at what the report mentioned above found:

“Social action was a familiar term to 75% of young people, but only half were able to define it”.

As I observed at the time:

“In other words, whilst they may of heard of it (social action), half of young people don’t know what it is. If we are going to have to work hard educating people, why not do so with a term that probably has higher recognition but a bit of an image problem (i.e. volunteering)?”

What then is holding us back from rebranding volunteering as an alternative to inventing new words for it?

I think part of the problem is that organisations can have a very traditional, almost purist, approach to what is and isn’t volunteering. This then reinforces a traditional, outdated view of volunteering which isn’t attractive to people. For example, if valid volunteering requires a regular, long-term commitment to low level tasks then count me out. I want something more dynamic, flexible and meaningful that I can dip in and out of.

This traditional mindset can also impede the ability of volunteer managers to influence others, further limiting our ability to reclaim the v-word. As Jayne Cravens and Martin J Cowling pointed out in their 2007 article:

”Managers must avoid reinforcing stereotypes and spurious distinctions about volunteers, and agree to work with, support and strategically position people who fall “outside” the realm of the limited idea of the “true” or “real” volunteer.”

That’s why I have always loved the late Ivan Scheier’s definition of volunteering – doing more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider to be good. It’s a personal definition. It implies organisations should start with what people want to do, the passions and experience they want to bring. It means creating roles with them that both meet our needs and fit with their availabilities and interests. It means a volunteering experience they enjoy, they find fulfilling and rewarding, and that doesn’t conform to the stereotype of old fashioned models of giving time.

John Ramsey, the founding chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers, once said:

“Language is incredibly important. It enables us to shape our thoughts and ideas, give voice to our emotion and shape identities.”

John was talking about the need to keep debating what volunteering is because society is always changing and so, therefore, is volunteering. But John always came back to and used the term ‘volunteering’. He didn’t go down the linguistic equivalent of the emperors new clothes, with terms like social action. We mustn’t either.

We have to reclaim and re-brand the word ‘volunteering’ so that its essence isn’t lost or diluted as others try to give it new names.

That’s why I run a workshop called ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’. It gives people space to think hard about their fundamental beliefs on volunteering and what that means for their practice as leaders of volunteer engagement.

Sadly, ‘The Philosophy of Volunteering’ is one of the sessions I am asked to do least. What a shame! It’s exactly the kind of session we need to ensure we resist clinging to an outdated, purist doctrine of volunteering in a fast changing world. It’s exactly the kind of session we need to help us inject new vitality and energy into the v-word.

Whilst it would be nice to get booked to run my philosophy workshop more often (hint hint!) there are other steps we can take to ensure the word volunteering remains relevant and important. Here are just two ideas:

  • When you hear another word for volunteering being used (e.g. social action, community action, time giving, pro bono etc.) ask why the v-word isn’t being used. Challenge any spurious distinctions being used to justify not calling something volunteering.
  • Keep abreast of how society is changing and what that means for volunteering. Years ago people giving short term commitments weren’t seen as valid volunteers, that status was reserved for the long-term, high commitment people. Those times have changed (thank goodness). How might today’s orthodoxies need to shift for the future?

What else would you add? What do you think about the use of v-word?

Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear what you think.

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13 thoughts on “When volunteering isn’t volunteering and why it matters

  1. Really interesting. We are bumping into a lot of comments about people not seeing themselves a volunteers because that is a middle class activity, one they would not aspire to. This is amongst older, generally working class, volunteers(they are volunteers they just don’t think so) in Leeds.

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  2. Volunteering is volunteering is volunteering. I’m much more intrigued about available opportunities that meet the needs of the cause I want to support matching what I’d like to do and/or can offer. Sometimes that works out really well, sometimes it goes horribly wrong. Did what you call it have the biggest impact? I agree do use the word volunteer with pride. It’s too easy to replace with other words to try and appeal and sell your offering. But no one has convinced me yet to do my backpile of ironing because it’s now called ‘me time’!

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  3. In a church setting someone told me that serving was a more appropriate term. That resonated with me so where possible I say or write those who serve. As christians we are called to serve god. .. we dont volunteer for hir.

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  4. Another thought provoking article Rob! Thank you.
    Love the balance and sentiment behind “doing more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider to be good.”
    I feel sometimes volunteering can be seen and heard as a ‘dirty word’ – because of fixed perceptions in society so a little creative rebranding under the broader banner of Volunteering can go a long way to attract attention and new diverse participants. Agreed that unfortunately the advent of multiple (but still brilliant) additional ‘movements’ like citizen science, social action, community outreach etc may have likely diluted the impact of volunteering in the long term; creating the need for new resources, structures, definitions, programmes that ultimately had it been under the umbrella of volunteering (should a programme already be established) would have been a perfect arm to it’s reach and impact but instead in most cases the wheels were reinvented.
    I also think sometimes volunteering can be like ‘selling salad’. E.g. eat salad because it’s good for you …and let’s face it there are few who take this kind of advice who aren’t already salad eaters?!) I think we as volunteer leaders need to be creative around our marketing campaigns for VE to ensure that the ‘why’ we do what we do is right at the fore of our roles descriptions and the value of the activity (linking back to the great definition you gave in this very article!)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “doing more than you have to, because you want to, for a cause you consider to be good.” I love this definition.

    I run a volunteer programme in a professional membership body and the confusion i see on people’s faces when I explain my job and then explain that my volunteers volunteer for the membership body internally and don’t actually do “traditional, alleviate poverty” type volunteering. Volunteering is bigger than BRC, Oxfam etc. But general society only has a one dimensional view of it. So yes I agree the word volunteering needs a serious rebrand.

    And just to add I recently was recruiting for an assistant, Volunteer Programme Assistant. Out of the 60 or so applications, at least 5 believed the role to be a volunteer role. There is a much bigger piece about working in volunteering in a paid capacity and the career path available. I still laugh when people ask me if I’m paid because my title has the word Volunteer in it!

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  6. In Germany there‘s a bin discussion about it also, and Mandy different words. The main question is about money in volunteering. We have tax refunds for example and many forms of „paid volunteering“. That causes a lot of problems because then there are dependencies and expectations. Is that a problem in the UK also?

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  7. Hi Rob,

    As someone who has worked and volunteered within the voluntary sector since I was about 16 (now 30), and recently within volunteer management specifically, including working last year on the government funded NCS youth projects, which included the label of Social Action Projects, I find your article very interesting!

    Is there some evidence I wonder that young people are more likely to engage in something that is newer and fresher sounding as volunteering is often associated with something older generations do (statistically true too). If a new term encourages young people to engage in volunteering, surely this is a good thing? And also how could we campaign to make the term volunteering more universally appealing if we don’t want to lose the essence of this word? If we agree that the term volunteering is very valuable, which I do! However perhaps multiple terms under one umbrella aren’t the worst?

    Just some thoughts as I found the article interesting 🙂

    Best wishes,

    Josie Korda

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this Josie. I think a big part of the problem is our national blindness to how fundamental volunteers are to society and how diverse volunteering is. What we need is perhaps not a campaign about the word volunteer but to energise and inspire the public about volunteering as the Olympics did seven years ago. No easy solutions for sure, but getting us all talking is a great start!

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  8. I was once the volunteer coordinator at a Cathedral. When I started there were no volunteering policies/ guidelines/ inductions or very much clarity on how volunteers should be managed/ supported. It was my job to get these in place. As my starting point I asked the volunteers how they viewed their role. Many said that they weren’t volunteers as they were there in the service of God. A very interesting, philosophical, issue that I had to think long and hard about. How people perceive their giving of time is fascinating and what we call that giving of time is maybe not always straight forward.

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    1. Jacky,

      I would agree with is. I try to engage people into volunteering across Hertfordshire. I find those with faith do not see volunteering as a label, like some, but more of what it is to be a good person and help their community.

      I do feel it’s our duty when advertising volunteering roles to continue to try and rebranding volunteering to not be ‘something you do when you retire’ or just ‘charity shop’ which is what a lot of the population see but to make sure people see what volunteers do outside these circles. Let’s face it not many organisations advertise their volunteer roles outside their known circles, such as volunteer centre, CVS, clients, do-it etc.

      Very interesting thoughts though and Rob if you’re up for talking on this at a conference or event. I would be interested in discussing if we could include this on our event schedule at #TeamHerts Volunteering. I.

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