The death of volunteering?

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By johnr on
Big Society, everything volunteering and volunteer management 619 views 0 likes 16 comments

NAVCA has produced a very interesting analysis paper on volunteering which is well worth 30 minutes of anybody’s time. But, there’s one section in particular that’s worth consideration.

“Our default response to new ‘volunteering’ initiatives will not be semantic debate about whether they are volunteering or not. Instead we will focus on the merits of particular initiatives and how they can be improved.”

On first reading I rather glossed over it. But when I re-read it I started to get uneasy.

Does it really no longer matter what volunteering is?

I should emphasise that I don’t mean to single NAVCA out, their remit isn’t to specifically worry about volunteering. They just happen to be a current example of something that I realised I had been hearing over the last couple of years: “Stop getting hung up about what is volunteering, just get on and do it!”

Language is incredibly important. It enables us to shape our thoughts and ideas, give voice to our emotion and shape identities. To say that we shouldn’t get caught up in the semantics of volunteering, surely undermines the whole concept of volunteering? It says volunteering just isn’t important. And is that the message we want to give the millions of people who volunteer?

There has been an inexorable blurring of volunteering in national policy. A big chunk of Big Society isn’t about volunteering, it’s about social action; The DH’s strategic vision for volunteering is called ‘Social action for health and well-being: building co-operative communities’. Social Action, not volunteering is now the vogue.

Social action and volunteering aren’t interchangeable terms.Social action, to me, is a specific, often organic, way of getting involved without the structural, processed support of organisations. I do not see it is as volunteering. And I rather think most social activists do not see themselves as volunteers.

[As an aside, I think we went through a period of attempting to label anything that moved as volunteering, culminating in that artificial edifice ‘Informal’ volunteering’.]

There’s also a very practical side to this though. The recent Workfare furore showed the danger of losing the distinctiveness of volunteering. Again and again I had to explain to people (funnily enough it wasn’t to journalists) that if they are volunteers then there is no compulsion and if there is then they are not volunteers.

There are many different ways to engage, participate and get involved in our society. Each has their value, and each could probably learn from others. Yes, we need to have that debate, to understand what these ways are, how they interact and how people touch on them. But that should not mean each should lose their distinctiveness.

To ignore the debate about ‘what is volunteering’, actually fails to recognise how relevant volunteering is to today's society. It is precisely because volunteering is ever evolving that that debate is ever ongoing. We should be revelling in the fact that volunteering is such a fluid and responsive beast, that it creates debate and argument, not be frustrated and dismissive.

The day we stop debating ‘what is volunteering’ is the day volunteering dies.

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Top answer

I truly believe that volunteering is a unique experience. You meet some incredible people and it's a highly undervalued networking opportunity in my opinion.

Those who volunteer tend to share an active, practical approach to activities and that 'go-to' attitude which lifts the spirit of the team.

Though not all volunteering guarantees a fulfilling experience for the volunteer, it's important that those who are being helped benefit from the experience.

@samanthasparrow if you take the person-centred approach around giving time, ie actually making it happen on the ground, then it's absolutely not about labelling people but about maximising the time they want to give, however they want to give it, and maximising their impact.

I am coming from a policy and practice approach, how we operate as organisations and how we develop and influence policy, where I believe it is absolutely fundamental and necessary we are clear about the nature of the giving relationship. As a sector we should be talking about the breadth of giving, but that does not preclude understanding the different ways it happens.

Personally, I believe if someone gives time outside the structured nature of an organisation it is different to volunteering BUT just to repeat what I said above, it's not about making judgements as to who is more 'important', nor ignoring the interraction between those dfferent relationships.

What I think is missing in the original discussion is whether it matters at all to the volunteer about what it is we call what they are doing? I would very much agree with @navca and @JamieT's responses above in that the word “volunteering” may not meet everyone’s personal take on what they are doing, even though we may define it as such.

My own view is that the most important thing for anyone working in this area is whether the giving of time is of benefit to the individual/group and to the community and is of high quality and demonstrates the impact on all involved. We can get to the notion of giving time in a number of different ways, whether that is through structured volunteering which involves an organisation, business or charity and has mechanisms in place for support, management and evaluation, ad-hoc, informal helping out or self organised groups that see a social problem that they want to solve that are not bound by what we may all think is a typical or more helpful volunteer journey.

As a sector, I believe that the discussion should not lie in whether we call it volunteering, social action or anything else, but how we can contribute the most to enabling people to give their time in the way that suits them, and how this may change. We should be led more by insight into how people are giving time for the benefit of others, as opposed to traditional structures of how we think people should or do give their time.

Of course it is important for those working in volunteer management to consider the quality of support they provide and of course there are circumstances where formal volunteer management processes and policies are required, and we should continue to strengthen support for that in every way. But organic, home grown action and time giving is just as important.

What stood out for me in the original post was that if a a person doesn’t have the structural support of an organisation it means they are not a volunteer in the traditional sense? I don’t believe this is true, and worry that thinking about volunteers in this way means those that give their time freely to benefit a cause, an individual or a social issue and makes an impact are not a volunteer and are somehow less important.

Social activists, volunteers etc – they are all time givers for a cause. Therefore it doesn’t matter what they think of themselves as – it matters as a sector that we embrace the breadth of action that takes place in communities up and down the country.

Lol I've always been in the 'get on with it' school but I do see the point, and I do accept that there has been a move by policy makers to shift the focus to something else in order to present it as new....

Yes, @JamieT this is definitely not aimed at volunteers etc unless they want to get involved in the debate. And it certainly isn't about trying to put a 'value' on someone's time and enagement. It's more about how we inform policy and practice and whether that is helped or hindered by the preciseness of language and the definition of actions.

This is how 'A Rose by any other name' summed it up (it goes into more detail in the publication)

"We believe that if policymakers and practitioners simply ‘get on with it’ without exploring some of the fundamental conceptual issues it can lead to negative outcomes for volunteering (and volunteers) and threatens realisation of the full potential of volunteering."

A really thought provoking blog thanks John. Personally I'm of the opinion that more or less anything that someone does to benefit the wider community that is not motivated by money or compulsion is volunteering. I accept that many people don't see themselves as such but the act of doing something because you want to and not because you have to is a voluntary activity in my book. This debate is timely but not new and I suspect it matters more to those of us that work in this business than to the volunteers or the social activists, who generally speaking probably don't really care that much.

As we know, volunteering, however you choose to view it, is not a single quantifiable thing - people are motivated for different reasons, some more altruistic than others. Is someone who coaches an after school football club any less of a volunteer than someone who befriends an elderly person? Just because one is organised in a more structured way does not make it any more volunteering than the other in my opinion.

I think trying to tie down volunteering to a specific definition does not do any of us any favours in the long term. As @NAVCA noted this site is called 'the social action network' mainly because we were concerned by the trend of policy makers focusing on this in vogue term, which is really volunteering in a different guise, so we wanted to show the obvious link and claim it for what we do. Having said that, the new ivo site will not be using it, mainly because we think we should be less hung up on what we call this beautiful and powerful expression of self, but instead focus more on the impact it has on making our world a better place.

Here’s a really timely (and readable) piece written by David Wood, CEO of Attend, which celebrates the contribution of a “generation of formidable women, with a great love of their local community, whose leadership has been, and remains, fundamental to the Leagues of Friends.”

It’s fairly clear that these ‘volunteers’, considered they were all about community action initially – the term ‘volunteer’ tended to be one they were attributed in time.

Anyway, here’s a snippet about one of the women featured, Pam Morton (no relation) who is still an utter inspiration in her 9th decade!

“Pam became a ‘community activist’ at a young age. In Sidmouth, she lighted on the plight of lobsters being cooked alive. Having tried the more conventional method of writing to the RSPCA to no effect, she recruited her cousins, and they would wail and cry at the plight of the lobsters outside the fishmongers. She comments “he must have been thrilled. “
Returning to Leeds at the end of the war, Pam’s interest in wildlife had been considerably stimulated. Not quite appreciating the change of environment, Pam set up a group to support the Natterjack toad. She recruited many of her friends, only to discover that the peace loving toad had moved out of York many years before.

Civic responsibility and public service had become core to Pam’s values and she embarked on a very successful career in education, which was different to how it is today. It was deemed it was as important to know the family as well as the child. It was a high profile community role, with lots of home visiting. There was also lots of fundraising, to raise money for basics. No-one questioned whether it was right or wrong, people just got on with it.”

@NAVCA yes I very unfairly took the statement out of context to make a point - by way of apology I shall once again exhort people to read the paper :)

@Eddie the DH paper defines social action as ‘individual or group activity that involves interaction with others, especially where this action is organised towards social reform’. They go on to say that volunteering is an important component of social action (so by definition they are not interchangeable). I’ve amended the blog to put a link into the paper if you’re interested.

One of the interesting things for me is that for too long there has been a clear divide between activism and volunteering (which I see in a much more formalised setting). This meant that as VMs we were missing a trick by failing to learn about how activism mobilises people in a very dynamic way. Now, it seems as @Laura77 refers to, it’s gone completely the other way.

My organisation is developing new ways to engage people, to keep them engaged and to develop that engagement. If we are to do that successfully we need to be clear about what we mean, and from my perspective be clear about where volunteering fits into that, because for a very practical reason we need to be able to properly invest time and resources into it.

The boundaries of volunteering are ever changing – see IVR’s “A rose by any other name” for a really good analysis of it – but they are still boundaries.

Voting is important. Being consulted’s important. Protesting’s important . And so is volunteering.

I don’t want to see volunteering being subsumed into a generic pot of action. I don’t want it to become meaningless. I don’t want it to fade away. It’s too special to me, you and millions of people who call themselves, with great pride, volunteers,

To stop that from happening we need to keep the debate going and be challenging about how we use the term ‘volunteering’.

Glad you’ve read the paper John. I do want to say that taking one bit of what we are saying doesn’t accurately reflect NAVCA’s view but you do this to make a point worth making so I’m happy you did.

I would say that our paper supports your view – we go on to say “We will challenge the use of the term “volunteering” where its use threatens to undermine wider voluntary action or volunteering itself.”

It is also worth remembering where we come from. NAVCA members support the whole range of community activity (including but not restricted to volunteering) so we support activity wider than just volunteering. We feel that some people in our sector can get hung up on a very “pure” notion of volunteering which probably never existed and certainly doesn’t meet everyone’s personal take on what they are doing.

For us the “semantic debate” is not the key issue and where focussing on it could overshadow more substantive issues, we are going to focus on the substantive issues. We have always prided ourselves on being a pragmatic organisation – doing what needs to be done to support local voluntary and community action (not social action). There are plenty of people better placed to have the ‘what is volunteering’ debate – and we will chip in where feel we can add value.

As we are all in agreement that words do matter – should the strapline of this website really be “the social action network?”

To give a definitive answer about whether I agree with @Johnr I'd have to say yes....and no.

As @Laura77 puts it so well, there are certain things that we should protect about volunteering to ensure its distinctiveness and the value it brings, to organisations, individuals, society etc.. Yet we shouldn't be close minded to how volunteering develops and evolves for that results in VMs out of touch with the realities of the environment in which we are working and VMs who marginalise themselves in organisations by only focusing on the 'pure' volunteers (whatever that is).

Interestingly though, even these aren't cut and dried - free choice for example. We'd accept that someone forced to do 'volunteering' or lose benefits isn't a volunteer in the truest sense. However, what about the student who must volunteer if they are to stand a chance in the labour market yet nobody is forcing them to volunteer? They have less free will about the choice than a 'pure' volunteer but most would accept they are still a volunteer as they have the choice not to get involved.

Also, not all developments in the conceptual definitions of volunteering are bad. When I started in this field there was a dim view taken of any volunteering that wasn't motivated by altruistic, self-sacrificial reasons. That's largely gone now - thank goodness - and I don't see that evolution as a bad thing.

I could go on for hours on this. The issue of our philosophy of volunteering is one of my favourite workshops and I'm running it at Volunteer Fair next month ( so please do come along to debate this important subject.


John refers to the DH’s strategic vision for volunteering being called ‘Social action for health and well-being: building co-operative communities’.
A quick glance at that document see Social Action being defined as: "Individual or group activity that involves interaction with others, especially where this action is organised towards social reform".


...and then it goes on to state: "Volunteering is an important component of social action. It takes many forms and presents tremendous opportunities for people to make a positive difference to their own lives and the lives of others by contributing their time and energy to an individual, service, community or cause."

This would suggest we would have a better understanding of the place for volunteering if developed our picture of what the other component parts of social action are...

Jamie Ward-Smith

I don't personally see much difference beyond social action tending to happen outside of formal charity set ups, but the lines are pretty blurred in my view...