Is it time we redefined volunteering?
05 July 2005
by Andy Fryar

Some months ago, I came across a very interesting and ‘out of the box’ concept called the '10,000 Hours Show' that I really liked on a number of levels - but which challenged me in many other ways.

It’s basically a ‘concert with a catch’.

The ‘concert’ part of the equation is straight forward. An organising committee host a major rock concert in the US state of Iowa each year with major headlining bands such as Ben Folds and Guster.

The ‘catch’ is that you can’t buy tickets!

Rather, tickets can only be gained by contributing at least 10 hours of volunteer work to a local community agency. Now in its third year, the original concept was to encourage 1,000 people to contribute 10 hours of volunteer time each, hence the figure 10,000 hours. This year the event actually ‘raised’ just over 20,000 hours of volunteer effort for the local community, and involved some 1,684 volunteers who contributed time to 138 volunteer agencies.

Here’s what I like about the idea.

Firstly, it is innovative. The concert offers a great incentive for many people, who may not have previously tried volunteering, to join a community group and ‘give it a go’. It seems there would also be a particular attraction in all of this to entice younger people to become involved in volunteer work. In fact, the concept could easily be duplicated to encourage the involvement of different community groups through offering concerts featuring different styles of music.

The other thing I really like about the project is that it clearly has a core goal to build the capacity of the Iowa community through increased volunteer involvement.

However, there were two other issues that the whole idea really got me thinking about which is what I wanted to share as a matter of debate through this month’s hot topic.

Incentives and rewards

I can already hear the purists amongst you thinking ‘hold on, this example does not reflect 'true' volunteering, as the volunteers involved are receiving a payment of sorts (ie concert tickets) for their participation’. While I personally have no problems with the concept of the 10,000 hours show, it does raise a number of questions about just where and when incentives and rewards become something more than that.

As fate would have it, Susan Ellis has written her Energize hot topic this month on this very subject. So rather than waxing lyrical abut this particular point, I would rather encourage you all to visit the Energize site and read Susan’s very comprehensive thoughts for yourself.

A redefinition of volunteering?

The second point I wanted to raise involves the way we define volunteering.

One of the things I particularly like about the ‘10,000 hours show’ is the way it pushes the boundaries in encouraging and attracting new recruits to volunteer in local community activities.

I think I’ve said before that I am no great fan of any definition of volunteering. For me, it always winds up being prohibitive in one aspect or another. Now before I get lynched, let me make it clear that I do think we should try and define the boundaries in which volunteering can and should operate, however my frustration continues to stem from the fact that volunteering bodies the world over create hard and fast definitions which then become ‘gospel’ for the following decade or more.

The reality is that volunteerism is moving and changing at a pace much faster than we are reviewing the way that we define what volunteering actually is, or has become. In brief, I wonder if we are being held back from truly recognising potential new forms of volunteer involvement simply by sticking rigidly to antiquated definitions?

Imagine if we still defined the role of women in society in the same way we did in the 1950’s. Consider the ramifications if we had never debated and redefined laws on divorce, child abuse, the welfare system or the treatment of our indigenous populations?

My point is that volunteerism, like everything else, is evolutionary, and I wonder if we have the ability to challenge ourselves and the ‘powers that be’ to continue to change with the times.

Recent developments such as the increased role of government in volunteering initiatives such as Australia’s ‘voluntary work initiative’ (VWI), where the long term unemployed can undertake 32 hours of volunteer work a fortnight in lieu of seeking paid work (and still be eligible to receive unemployment benefit) have helped pave the way for us to start defining volunteering differently.

I clearly remember at the time VWI was first introduced, that there was considerable debate about whether or not this did actually constitute ‘true’ volunteering. This debate quickly died down and in Australia this initiative is now a part of our volunteering vocabulary. Similarly terms such as vacationer volunteers, virtual volunteers, episodic volunteering and family volunteer involvement were hardly even thought of a decade ago, yet today they offer a integral avenue to involving volunteers in a whole range of new and exciting opportunities.

So what about initiatives like the 10,000 hour show? Where and how does this event fit into standard volunteering definitions which clearly state that volunteering must occur without any payment, other than out-of-pocket expenses? Do we discount the many community benefits that have obviously been derived from this musical extravaganza for the sake of standing our high moral ground, or do we acknowledge that at the end of the day (or concert) the benefits derived from the process justify the means? Would the dynamics change if each volunteer got two tickets – or ten, valued at a much higher price?

Using the Volunteering Australia definition as an example (this is quite similar to definitions used the world over) , here are some of the questions I believe need to be asked and considered:

  • Why do we continually have to define volunteering only within the constraints of ‘formal’ volunteering?
  • Why can’t we create a definition that covers all types of volunteer involvement?
  • What is the rationale for this ‘formal’ volunteering only needing to occur through not-for-profit organisations?
  • Where do ‘for profit’ agencies (such as private nursing homes for example) fit into this scenario?
  • How do we define ‘without coercion’?
  • Does ‘without financial payment’ cover the whole gamut of payment types (such as concert tickets)?
  • How do we describe ‘benefit to the community’? Whose community and to what benefit?
  • Do we, by definition, prohibit ourselves from using innovative methods of incentive to recruit new volunteers to our programs?

Of course having served as the President of Volunteering Australia, I do know the rationale behind all of these arguments and I am playing the devil’s advocate here to a degree, but I truly believe this is a continuing debate that needs to occur. We need to challenge convention and think outside the square - there is no room inside a box. We need to look upon new volunteering initiatives not so much as ‘the enemy’ but rather as a new member of the family, who we should perhaps take some time to get to know before making a judgement about their genetic makeup.

Most of all, we need to remember that the way volunteering will be defined and valued in the future, begins with all of us today!

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