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…
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.”
”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”.
“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 This then reinforces a traditional, outdated view of volunteering which isn’t attractive to people.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.