Grappling with the ‘V’ word in Volunteers’ Week

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It’s Volunteers’ Week, and I’m sure I’m not alone in relishing the stories of kindness, commitment and faith in human nature circulating in the media. It’s a great opportunity to celebrate the astonishing range of unpaid contribution that makes our sector so special.

But I do have a problem with the terminology. The ‘V’ word – volunteering – continues to suffer from an image problem, conjuring ideas of a certain class, gender and age or person, giving a certain kind of help. It’s not accurate, of course. But neither does it help us encourage as wide a range of people as possible to become active in their community.

 A volunteer is not a type of person  Someone who volunteers is of course also a father or a cancer survivor, or has elderly parents, or an allotment, or is long-term unemployed or an artist. Or any of the other aspects of individuals’ lives, experience and interests. Labelling someone a volunteer can get in the way of building relationships, person to person, and can introduce an unhelpful gap between helper and helped.

 Some things are not seen as volunteering   I’m a blood donor and a school governor, and I help out my elderly neighbours occasionally, but it took Sandra Adair from Volunteer Now in Belfast to gently point out to me that this made me a volunteer. Informal neighbourly support is a hugely under-recognised community asset, but many people would not see this as volunteering. Likewise blood donation: it doesn’t fit into the image of a regular Tuesday afternoon ‘volunteering’ slot, but is a great way of making an occasional contribution. At the other end of the scale, trustee and board membership tends also to be seen in a different category.

So perhaps there is more work to be done in updating the ‘brand’ of volunteering, to make it as inclusive and innovative as possible.

The View from Devon

A couple of years ago I did a piece of research work on volunteering in the cultural sector (very loosely defined) in Torbay. Here are some of the things I observed:

It’s a dynamic process, not a solid state Most people who volunteer with an organisation build a relationship with it gradually – maybe starting out as the parent of pre-schooler using a toy library, then moving on to help out with sessions once their child is in school, and later becoming a board member. The organisations who recognise this as an ongoing process of connection, rather than a one-off ‘recruitment’ process, engage, retain and make the best use of unpaid support.

It’s reciprocal  Talk to anyone about their volunteering and you’ll quickly learn about what it means to them, and how they have enriched their own lives through the connection. Take this one step further and you have a model where everyone shares their skills and passions, as well as drawing on support when they need it.

It’s collective (and place-based) Very often, coming together with others to make a difference to the place where you live is the basis for successful voluntary action. Many volunteers talk about needing to feel a sense of belonging before they can participate in community activity. Although of course, participating in whatever is going on is a very good way to feel you belong.

It’s radical Volunteering might sound like a cosy and safe activity, but never underestimate the power of person-to-person connections to change lives and communities.

At DCF, much of our work is with very small organisations, often without any paid staff members at all. In these organisations ‘volunteers’ cover everything from admin to strategy, and cleaning the loos to governance. In contrast with an impulse in larger organisations to ‘professionalise’ the management of volunteers, small organisations, of necessity, have to do things differently – no danger here of volunteering becoming ‘too much like paid work’, as someone described it to me.

It’s part of our role to find creative ways of describing and valuing all of this great work, and show how volunteering is an essential part of thriving communities. So whatever you call them – us – keep sharing those inspiring stories, whether it’s Volunteers’ Week or not.

Nicola Frost, Knowledge Guru, DCF