25 July 2006
Our understanding of what volunteering is, and what it means, can change in response to social developments, as can the reasons people volunteer. Over the past 100 years in Australia, volunteering has been seen in different ways, and some of the activities we call volunteering today would once have been seen just as part of women's domestic workload or being a good neighbour.
So what is volunteering? Does it still need to reflect an altruistic impulse or a religious conviction? Is it just what people do when they retire? Does it have to involve 'putting something back' or 'making a difference'? Is it still volunteering if you only coach the netball team because your child plays in it? Is it volunteering if you work for free at, say, a music festival in return for free entry?
These sorts of questions are becoming more common because people, and organizations, go on thinking up new ways to volunteer, new areas to volunteer in, and new outcomes and objectives that we as a community can achieve through volunteering. There is also an increasing tendency for enterprises whose sole or primary goal is profit-making but which have a 'community' focus or provide 'community services' to attract and incorporate volunteers into their workforces. What does this mean for volunteering?
Looking at the formal Definition and Principles of Volunteering can help clarify the question of what is, and isn't, volunteering in the Australian context. According to the formal definition, 'volunteering is an activity which takes place through not-for-profit organisations or projects and is undertaken:
• to be of benefit to the community and the volunteer;
• of the volunteer's own free will and without coercion;
• for no financial payment; and
• in designated volunteer positions only'.
This definition and the accompanying principles are the result of a national consultation undertaken in 1996 with a wide range of stakeholders including volunteers, personnel of not-for-profit organizations, policy makers and unions. The definition and principles were reaffirmed when they were incorporated in 2001 in the National Agenda on Volunteering, which remains the current action plan for the advancement of volunteering in Australia.
Identifying volunteer roles
So, if you want to volunteer, how can you find yourself the right volunteer role? And how can you tell legitimate volunteer roles and the more doubtful ones apart? Before volunteering, ask the volunteer-involving organization these questions:
• Is the organization, or its volunteer-involving project, not-for-profit?
• Does what the organization does match your own values and beliefs? (check their mission and values)
• Is this the sort of work you'd like to do/learn?
• Will your role be clear and specific?
• Does the organization have volunteer insurance?
If you are a volunteer-involving organization, you need to be able to answer these questions from people wanting to volunteer. And you should also have a good understanding of what positions to offer volunteers and what positions are more suitable for paid staff. You might find it useful to look at Volunteering: What's it all about? which contains some tools to help you differentiate between paid and volunteer roles. This new recruitment and induction toolkit, which is free from the Volunteering Australia website, was designed as an introduction to volunteering, but you can also use it to help build understanding of these basic issues within your organization.