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Good and Bad: Musings on the Complexities and Nuances of Volunteering in Real Life

Good and Bad: Musings on the Complexities and Nuances of Volunteering in Real Life

The world seems like a scary place right now. Between the political divisions, climate change threat, and COVID-19 worries, it feels like everyone would benefit from a bit of the positivity and good things that volunteers and volunteerism can bring.

As leaders of volunteers, it should be no surprise to us that volunteers can have a profound impact on the trajectory of all these situations. But nor should it be a surprise that the influence of volunteers can be for good or ill. Volunteers are people, which is why Erin has been joking for years that one day she'll write a book (no doubt a bestseller!) called, "The Only Problem With Volunteers Is That They're People." World views are becoming more polarized and volunteers are not immune, representing a multiplicity of opinions, beliefs, and causes they are willing to support. 

It would be naïve to proclaim that volunteering is always objectively good. The socially acceptable view of volunteering being for the greater good isn't wrong per se, but it has never demonstrated a true understanding of the complexities and nuances of volunteering in real life. In today's world, this overly simplistic conceptualization is actually a hindrance to understanding the power of volunteers and why our role as leaders of volunteer engagement is so critical.

Volunteers can make the world a better place - but it behoves us to ask the question, "Better for whom?" Research from spinktank conducted after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election demonstrated that a surprising number of new volunteers in America were inspired to take action for the first time because they opposed the political views of their new President. From this we see that people will start volunteering when they feel strongly against something. Similarly, people volunteer when they feel strongly for something, whether we agree with those beliefs or not. So just as there have been increases in the number of people volunteering for organizations supporting refugees, there has also been a rise in people volunteering with neo-Nazi and alt-right groups.

Volunteering is also stepping outside traditional lines. We have only to look at the activism of Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion movement to see this. Volunteering can be simultaneously an act of civic engagement and civil disobedience, depending on your view. Volunteering is not simply a nice thing to do: volunteers are directly shaping the world with their choices and actions. From volunteer firefighters laying their lives on the line in the Australian wildfires, to the potential of volunteers playing a role in the detection, management, and support around COVID-19, volunteers are on the front lines of the activities that are determining the kind of world we live in, or don't!

All of this has a number of considerations for us as leaders of volunteer engagement. In this Points of View, let’s review a few of these.

Connecting global trends to our corners of the world

One critical role that leaders of volunteer engagement can play is to help our organizations be aware of and prepared for the impact of global trends on local realities. Volunteer rates and a preference for more episodic activities are go-to reference points for most of us, but other areas might be less obvious. What about macro human trends like the mass migration of people due to climate change or the changing nature and dynamics of power in society? What does this mean for the expectations people have about how they engage with institutions, from national governments to our own not-for-profits? A great primer on this is Jeremy Heimans’  and Henry Timms’ book, New Power.

Become better versed on the ethical and philosophical issues around engaging volunteers, both at your organisation and in general

One of the workshops Rob loves to run most is “The Philosophy of Volunteering.” It’s a chance for volunteer engagement professionals to spend time thinking about the philosophical and ethical underpinnings of volunteering and the practical application of those issues in our work.

For example:

  • When does volunteering become something bad? When a volunteer breaks the law? What if that was done in pursuit of a well-intentioned aim? As the late Susan J. Ellis was fond of pointing out, nobody gets paid to start a revolution. Without volunteers breaking the laws of the day, the American Revolution wouldn’t have started, and around the world women and people of colour may still not have the vote. Where are the boundaries in your organisation?
  • Where do we draw the line on free will as a key component of the definition of volunteering? If we are uncomfortable with high-school student graduation requirements being labelled volunteering, then why are we happy with the expectation (but not requirement) that college students are expected to volunteer if they stand a chance of being competitive in the post-graduation labour market? Both remove free choice by the volunteer, but to different degrees. What’s acceptable and why?
  • If we believe, as some do, that most employee volunteering isn’t really volunteering because the employees are giving time that is provided by paid leave from work, are we ready to close off a potential route to financial donations and other support from the corporate world?

The sad truth of 21st century non-profits is that you, the Volunteer Manager, are probably the only person thinking about these things in your organisation. So, to get all Yoda on you, do it if you must. How else will your organisation know where to draw the line in the ever-shifting sands of society?

Challenge our own assumptions and biases

When we place our own biases on what is and isn’t volunteering, we play a part in shaping it. This may have unintentional consequences, harmful and not. We must consider what role we play, as leaders of volunteers, in stifling or supporting how volunteerism is evolving and being understood. Not doing so both ignores and diminishes the influence we so often speak of wanting.

Look at both sides of the coin

Understandably, many of us are the judges of what are appropriate and inappropriate ways of engaging volunteers within our organizations. This includes advising on the legality of practices with volunteers that expose our organizations to risk, as well as whether situations volunteers may be placed in are safe or dangerous.

However, shouldn’t part of our professional role also be to counterbalance some of the potentially ethically slippery slopes of volunteering? If we view volunteering as people ‘voting with their feet’ when they support causes important to them, then what actions can we / should we take as a profession if volunteers are choosing to become involved with groups that undermine civil society or work against human rights, the environment, etc.? Do we agree on what the ‘greater good’ is?

By continuing to limit the ideology about volunteers and volunteerism around the ‘do-gooder’ narrative, we are limiting ourselves and short-changing the world. Like the Japanese art of Kintsugi, it is through embracing flaws and imperfections that we create a stronger whole.

Step outside our own comfort zones

We may be so busy focusing on the day-to-day demands of our roles that the changing world and all its complexities and nuances is passing us by. Our occupational worries dominate our thinking. For example: recruitment and retention rates; how we will staff those regular, long-term volunteer roles; planning next year’s National Volunteers Week events; and whether anyone will come to the next volunteer social.

As Erin’s free eBook, “Top 20 Ideas in Volunteer Engagement for 2020,” makes clear, the time has come for us to shift from the day-to-day to being more strategic and aspirational in our work. We need to influence and effect change, not simply think about how we add more volunteers to the team.

We know that this can be a big, scary step out of our comfort zones. It’ll be a bigger step for some than others. But we must make it together if we aspire to growing the relevance of volunteer engagement in meeting society’s and the planet’s greatest challenges as we move deeper into the 21st century.

What does this all mean?

Our hope is that this Points of View will prompt you to do some deep thinking about the contemporary context for, and practice of, volunteering. Whilst that may seem very conceptual and not the best use of your time given the daily demands you face, we passionately believe this kind of thinking needs to happen if our profession is to advance and grow its impact in the world. But more importantly, this kind of thinking need to happen because our work matters and can play a tangible role in building a better world.

We also believe that this thinking has to happen in the minds of professionals around the world who are in the trenches of volunteer engagement. It’s not enough for consultants and thought leaders to shape our profession.

As we said at the start, it feels like everyone would benefit from a bit of the positivity and good things volunteers and volunteerism can bring. It’s your job as a Volunteer Engagement Professional to help enable that positive impact to happen. With the right thinking underpinning your efforts, we can all make so much more of a difference in our world.

We’d love to hear what you think about all of this. Would you add anything to our thinking? Do you agree or disagree with anything we’ve said? Please leave a comment below with your point of view.


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Wed, 11/25/2020

"Volunteers can make the world a better place - but it behooves us to ask the question, "Better for whom?'"

This pretty much sums up my opposition to most voluntourism and vanity volunteering: it seems to be focused on giving the volunteer a feel-good experience, often by excluding the actual, most critical needs of the people to be served, and without their leadership in creating roles and tasks. 

"When does volunteering become something bad?"

When it's more focused on giving the volunteer the feel-good, Instagram- ready moments instead of the most critical needs of the nonprofit or charity and those they serve. When it promotes white savior-ism, colonialism, and patriarchy.

And I admit getting tired of hearing, over and over, "people want short-term, micro tasks." I've heard this for more than a decade - yet, what I see people wanting, on Quora, on Reddit, in conservation with young people, is meaningful volunteering, including long-term, high-responsibility roles, where they see real impact from their service. And when I am a manager and recruiter of volunteers, I keep getting asked for MORE MORE! Not, "Could you create something that I could do just a few hours whenever I might feel like it between now and the end of the month?"