From ‘Fordist’ volunteering to volunteer network
07 December 2007
by Bruno Ayres and Fabiano Morais

Volunteer management may be analyzed from at least two different angles. The first one, which we have labeled here as “Fordist” [1], sees volunteering as an instrument of aid, to be applied using much the same molds of a job or formal employment. Based on orders and standards, this kind of volunteering is encouraged for ready-made activities created and planned by a bigger entity, whether a company or social organisation. Its work tends to be institutionalized and, not surprisingly, is often measured in hours worked and analyzed using quantitative criteria.     

Another perspective, which we shall call here “volunteer-to-volunteer” (V2V),[2] or “volunteer networks”, sees volunteers as agents and promoters of their own actions, which are often performed in groups that share similar values.  Equipped with self-awarene ss and conscious of their talents and context in which they find themselves, volunteers in this second category naturally and spontaneously act based on their own realities and establish relationships with their peers (often neighbors, colleagues, parents in their children’s school, etc.).    

The Fordist perspective considers the supply side of volunteering opportunities to be scarce (for reasons not unjustified) since today there is a large number of people willing to participate.  According to the Fordist logic of ma ss ification and limited choice for the demand side, those who wish to volunteer must fill in registration forms and face long waiting lists until finally placed somewhere.    

Such logic is directly based on the limiting notion that volunteering is something that takes place mainly at the institutional level: that it depends on formal opportunities and is nece ss arily organized.  The idea is further supported by narrow definitions of volunteering or images and stereotypes created by the media.   

The reality of volunteering, however, is greater and more diverse than the immediate images a ss ociated with it.  If we look at volunteering through a wider lens we can see that the number of volunteering po ss ibilities depends only on the volunteer’s creativity and the community’s capacities and needs.[3]  Therefore, under the waterline of public visibility there is a vast universe of volunteering involving millions of citizens in an endle ss variety of contexts.  Volunteering is the common strand between the senior citizen helping at the local church’s charity fair and the Greenpeace activist; between participating in Alcoholics Anonymous group se ss ions and donating a few hours a week to a care center; between helping around the neighborhood and engaging in cyberactivism.     

If we look at volunteering in this way, we actually turn the Fordist logic around.  The supply of opportunities becomes virtually unlimited, and citizens gain strength from the range of po ss ibilities offered to them.  It is this very notion of a balance between the supply of volunteering opportunities and the demand for participating as volunteers that comes to mind when we speak of a volunteer-to-volunteer logic.     

The V2V perspective is inspired by network patterns.  The term “volunteer-to-volunteer”, or V2V, alludes to a type of computer network known as peer-to-peer (or P2P)[4], where users directly share resources (i.e., information, documents, music).  In a peer-to-peer network, there are no intermediaries and all users have equal status:  all participants are able to share information in their po ss e ss ion, and in exchange receive other information they may be interested in.   

Due to independent and flexible characteristics, the network presupposes an apparent lack of control in its organization.  The only way to control a network made of people, without disturbing these principles, is to distribute the po ss ibility of regulation – the participants as a group work to maintain the network’s integrity.   The same occurs in countle ss social initiatives in which participants are truly involved and develop healthy relationships among one another.  To create such networks one must believe in people and in the power of relationships.    

One last contrast between the two points of view: in Fordist volunteering, people manage people and resources to reach a common goal.  Surely there’s nothing wrong with that.  It often works, and besides, it’s absolutely practical and realistic.  But there is another way to volunteering, from volunteer to volunteer, where people take care of other people and their initiatives, just like they would take care of living things, which develop in their own time and do not depend only on the will of their inventor.    

A volunteer who feels comfortable with his or her action, the development of new technologies, and above all, the pre ss ing need to value people and reform democratic practices, all point towards a generous and transforming moment in our society.

This article appeared in CIVICUS newsletter which highlighted International Volunteer Day, 5 December.

From: Civicus

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