Have we regulated volunteer management beyond recognition?
15 February 2006
by Andy Fryar

As a small child I still remember quite vividly, those occasions when my Mother would take me with her to work at the local hospital, where she was employed as a nursing Sister.

I can easily recall the excitement of following her into patient’s room, where she would perch herself at the top of the bed and have a friendly chat with old Mr Jones or Bob, who had been involved in a motor vehicle accident. In no way was that all she did, but the personal touch was, at that time, an integral part of the nurse’s occupation.

In fact those early memories of the nursing profession of nearly 40 years ago were the main reason I started my professional life seeking to become a theatre nurse …and yes, before you say it, I know I took a radical turn somewhere along the way!

To continue the brief family history for a moment, the turn I did take into the volunteering field came about from witnessing and working closely with another of my family members – in this case my step-mother - in her chosen professional role some 20 years later. In case you haven’t guessed, she worked as a Volunteer Program Manager (I’m second generation!),and just like my mother and her nursing, I well remember the volunteer management style of the early to mid 1980’s as being a relaxed and casual affair.

Sure there was some paperwork involved, but for the most part it was more about people than processes. Having a coffee with Jill when she arrived at 11.00am, following up with Betty to see how her first day on the job was going or asking Daryl how his new grandchild was. These were some of the most significant and important parts of any day.

Little did I know that in the early 90’s, when I myself became a volunteer manager, that I was about to jump on a giant roller coaster of change!

Huge change.

Incremental change.

Change that would redefine the very essence of our profession.

In Australia, the change I refer to came about as a result of many things – risk management issues, the increased need for more prudent screening procedures, insurance, the threat of litigation, government involvement in the volunteering sector, the development of an established volunteer centre network and our own desire to be seen as a ‘profession’, were just a few of these reasons.

In fact, the roller coaster got faster as volunteering continued to evolve - to the point that many of us are now simply hanging on for dear life as the ride continues to spin around and around in the same horrifying loop! I’m sorry if this sounds bleak, but it is a story I hear over and over again as I move around the sector and I believe it is just one of the reasons we have such a high turnover in this field.

Now before I type another word, let me state quite categorically that I am not in any way opposed to change, and in fact much of what has transpired in volunteer management in Australia over the past 20 years was well overdue. Policy development, more diligent screening practices, tighter training regimes and the implementation of sound risk management strategies were (and continue to be) both needed and necessary.

  • However at what point do we need to ask the question of just where will this all end? 
  • At what juncture do we stop legislating and creating policy and allow common sense to take its place? 
  • What is the balance between the more formal management regimes we are expected to implement and the expectations of volunteers, whose motivations to volunteer usually don’t care about such things;
  • How do we create an environment in which we can refocus on some of the niceties that volunteer managers, like my step-mother, used to experience, while still ensuring a responsible attitude to volunteer safety and well being?

I distinctly remember Linda Graff beginning to ask these types of questions on her last visit to Australia in April 2004, while my December 2003 hot topic tackled a similar vein of thought. Interestingly, I believe these questions are beginning to be posed with more and more frequency by the leading voices in volunteerism internationally as we have started to really appreciate the evolutionary basis of volunteering.

The fact is that unless we occasionally take stock of the path we are on, examine where that is taking us – and more importantly ask if it is where we want to go – nothing will ever change.

So where does all this lead us?

Well firstly, I think we need to be careful that we are not becoming dinosaurs in the way we think about volunteer management. What we can be sure of is that in the same way that volunteering today is quite different than it was twenty years ago, it will be quite different again in 2010 or 2016. Think about it, even if you are using a 2000 model for volunteering, you’re already six years behind the times!

We need to be developing strategies that allow us to keep up with best practice thinking – and not have to ‘catch up’ with it. Joining newsgroups or professional associations like AAVA, subscribing to volunteering journals or attending conferences are just a few simple ways of achieving this.

Secondly, let me encourage us all to think for ourselves a little more. There seems to be a tendency for many VPM’s to want to be ‘spoon fed’ the solutions to every problem. The truth is that volunteering is too broad a field to have one set of solutions for every situation. What we need to learn is how to seek our own solutions – that’s what makes us a ‘profession’ – the ability to take a volunteering situation and analyse it for ourselves and on behalf of our organizations.

Next, let’s start to challenge convention a little more. The involvement of government, the creation of community compacts and the increased need to meet legal standards have, in many cases been great for the volunteering sector. There are however plenty of other cases where this involvement has also resulted directly in a complete ‘dog’s breakfast’!

If we keep bending over to comply without ever asking ‘why’ or seeking other alternatives we will continue to head in a direction where our professional lives are consumed by paperwork and a sense of being disenfranchised. We will wind up in a place we never intended to be, and perhaps even one we don’t like at all.

So let’s hear what you think?

  • Have we over regulated volunteering? 
  • Is there too much emphasis on the legalities in volunteer management these days? 
  • If so, have we lost something in this over regulation? 
  • Are the models of good volunteer management practices being taught still relevant? 
  • Do we want to regain some of the ground we have lost – and if so, how do we go about it?
This page can found at: http://www.worldvolunteerweb.org/news-views/viewpoints/doc/have-we-regulated-volunteer.html