12 April 2006
by Sha Cordingley
A volunteer watches as fireworks explode over the Melbourne Cricket Ground stadium, as Britain's Queen Elizabeth II declares the Commonwealth Games open in Melbourne 15 March 2006. (Reuters/David Gray)
I was intrigued to read Mirko Bagaric’s article
about the Commonwealth Games volunteers posted on 20th March 2006.
Whilst we are in the midst of an intensive five-year campaign (started in the International Year of Volunteers 2001) to promote the fact that healthy communities are about volunteer participation in a multitude of areas, the author is busily injecting value judgement into the type of involvement and its relative merit. Contrary to the view postulated in the article, volunteering is often as much about means as ends.
Volunteering isn’t confined to service delivery to the frail elderly, ‘needy people’, or some form of benign charity stemming from the Poor Laws. Volunteering is about active citizenship and the building of social capital.
In reality, it is a dynamic and evolving activity where choice is fundamental and people use their skills and interests for some community benefit. In 2004, 13.4 million Australians donated $5.2 billion to non-profit organizations and an additional $2 billion was raised by people buying raffle tickets. Over 41% of the adult population volunteered their time and skills for a variety of causes including care of the aged, victims of crime, disability services, asylum seekers and victims of torture as well as a myriad of sporting, cultural and environmental groups. This has been a steady increase from 1995 where the figures were around 24% of the population. How can the accusation that we ‘refuse to assist those in genuine need’ be levelled, when it is quite clear from the statistics that Australia is growing and developing as a volunteering and philanthropic nation?
It was said that one of the benefits to Sydney of staging the Olympic Games was that it would gain a unique, trained volunteer workforce. It was also hoped that the event might encourage more people to volunteer for other events or programmes. I’m guessing that given the numbers of people already volunteering, a good proportion of the Sydney Olympics and Commonwealth Games volunteers have both a history of giving and volunteering. We know for a fact that the people providing emergency service and sporting support for the Commonwealth Games were already existing volunteers in those areas; and some business sponsors released paid staff to volunteer as part of their overall programme of volunteer involvement.
People come to volunteering with many motives and I for one wouldn’t like to judge the merit of their activities against some arbitrary value scale. Plus, apart from anything else we know that many people volunteer for more than one organization. For example, in 2000, over a third of volunteers (35%) had worked for more than one organization in the preceding 12 months.
The simple proposition that Commonwealth Games volunteers should instead have ‘worked extra hours in their day jobs (assuming they have one) and donated this extra money to feed some of the starving in Africa’ may provide comfort and solution to some – but to me that smacks of the logic my mother used about not leaving food on our plates because there are starving people in the world. Perhaps a more systemic approach to some of the world’s structural problems might be a better solution than bagging a handful for people having fun.
(Sha Cordingley is the CEO of Volunteering Australia.)