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No Matter Where: Volunteering for the Olympic Games

No Matter Where: Volunteering for the Olympic Games

Every four years, the local organizing committee of either the Summer or Winter Olympics faces the challenge of recruiting and deploying thousands of volunteers in support of the massive event. And every four years, the Olympic committee seems to reinvent the system from scratch.

Various news items have already surfaced about volunteering for the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London.  These stories range from human interest to political controversy, and all have relevance to volunteering anywhere, if viewed from a broader perspective.  Here’s a sampling:

  • In keeping with its determination to impress the world through hosting the Games, China is also paying attention to its volunteer corps (see http://en.beijing2008.cn/volunteers/index.shtml for all sorts of news items).   There seems be sincere enthusiasm among the Chinese people to get involved.  Four years ago, on a vacation to China, Susan met several people – including an 80-year-old woman – who were already expressing delight at the prospect of “volunteering,” which was how it was translated to us. 
  • There is some evidence that the Paralympic Games, immediately following the Olympics, are already educating the Chinese government and the public about physical disabilities, in a culture that widely discriminates against people who are “different.”  A few weeks ago, All Things Considered on National Public Radio interviewed a Chinese woman who is an activist for the disabled, particularly for Little People, as she is 3 feet, 8 inches tall.  She noted that there are few volunteer assignments accessible to people with disabilities (though she admitted that she did not speak a language other than Chinese, which the organizers require of all official Olympic volunteers). Then, she said, she heard about a special role called a “Smile Volunteer.”  The assignment is to distribute information to visitors and smile warmly.  “That I can do,” she said.
  • The Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) ran a story in February headlined, “B.C. civil servants to be paid to volunteer at 2010 Olympics” (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2008/02/14/
    bc-paid-volunteers.html
    ).  The move is controversial, as this excerpt shows:

    VANOC is praising the proposal, saying it will bring workers with valuable skills to the volunteer pool and are expecting at least 50 other large employers in B.C. offer similar incentives.

    NDP Olympics critic Harry Bains is not impressed with the paid-leave plan, saying it could cost taxpayers millions of dollars and is another example of the hidden costs of the Games.

    But Hansen said the policy was first implemented for the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria by the NDP, which also allowed civil servants to use vacation time to volunteer at that event.

    The program was criticized by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which said Olympic spending is already out of control.

    CBC then posted this query to its Web site, “Should government employees get paid leave to volunteer at the Olympics?” – and waited for viewer/reader response.  They sure got it!  See http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/features/
    yourview-olympics/2008/02/should_government_employees_ge.html
    for a wide range of opinions.

Because this Points of View will be current as the Olympics take place in Beijing, it seemed timely to reflect on some of the issues.  Note that we’re raising questions rather than providing answers.  Maybe someday someone will actually take a closer look to study what’s going on when it comes to volunteering for the Olympic Games.

Are the Olympics Different?

David Brettell contributed an article to e-Volunteerism about his experience in managing the volunteer corps for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia . Clearly we’re discussing volunteer management on an enormous scale – tens of thousands of volunteers, hundreds of  venues, scores of languages.  The first Olympics with large-scale volunteer involvement – Los Angeles in 1984 – enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers.  By Atlanta in 1996, the figure had grown to more than 60,000, a number equaled in Athens in 2004.  Even the smaller Winter Olympics have involved very large numbers of volunteers – 32,000 for Nagano in 1998 and  26,000 for Salt Lake City in 2002.

Yet even with these large-scale volunteer efforts, all the elements of good volunteer management must be in place, including: an efficient application process; some way to screen and assign volunteers; consistent orientation for all volunteers plus training specific to each assignment, sport, or venue; a recordkeeping and scheduling system; a plan for on-site supervision/team leadership; meaningful forms of recognition; risk management policies; and more.  Makes us hyperventilate, just creating the list! 

The Olympics are different in one small aspect of volunteer management from most volunteer programs: they never suffer from a recruitment problem.  In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, over 75,000 applicants volunteered for approximately 46,000 volunteer slots. In 2004, Athens had over 160,000 applicants for 60,000 volunteer slots for the Olympics and Paralympics.  The numbers suggested for Beijing are simply astronomical – over half a million volunteers in total, with 70,000 involved directly in the Olympics, 30,000 in the Paralympics and the rest involved around Beijing to welcome and assist visitors.

Let’s note, however, that there are many large special events around the world every year that involve exactly the same preparation and coordination for the engagement of thousands of volunteers.  This includes the Burning Man Festival (http://www.burningman.com/), the Calgary Stampede (http://calgarystampede.com/) and countless marathons and other fundraising events (see the 2006 Keyboard Roundtable on “Major Events Volunteering”)

Which begs the question:  Are the Olympics different?   Our answer: Maybe, at least in terms of public perception.

Is Olympic Volunteering Always Volunteering?

There is a status accorded to Olympics volunteering that is not often seen at other events.  The scale and international nature of the Games are rarely duplicated and people feel great pride in hosting the world in their country.  Interestingly, the label “volunteer” becomes a badge of honor for two weeks – contrary to the lack of prestige that label generally earns.

And this is despite the fact that most Olympic volunteering is standing around, pointing people to where they want to go.  Or monitoring the condition of the ice on the ski jump overnight when no one is there except work crews and other volunteers.  Yet, as Brettell explained in his article and that lovely Chinese grandmother told us, people still feel honored to be an Olympic volunteer.

So what can we learn from the Olympics that will empower the word volunteer the rest of the time?

First, let’s be clear that the majority of volunteers at most Olympics are unquestionably there by choice and without remuneration.  Most pay their own travel and lodging expenses, though they do get the justifiable perk of official Olympic volunteer clothing and sometimes entry to a medal event.   

But the Canadian government employee controversy currently underway is not unusual.  Let’s dissect the issues involved:

  • In the volunteer world, we’ve accepted “work-release” time as an acceptable form of employee volunteer program, at least when the employer is a for-profit business.  We know that the employee is, in effect, being paid by his or her company to do service in the community – but the agency that benefits from the service does not have to pay cash for the help and therefore receives it just as any other volunteered time.  (It’s funny that some purists will squabble over whether a student receiving academic credit is a “volunteer,” but seem quite ready to overlook the full pay a business person might be receiving, but let’s leave that for another commentary!)
  • More recently, large and small nonprofits and units of government have jumped on the “workplace volunteering” bandwagon, on the theory that any employer should feel enough social responsibility to make it possible for employees to find/make time to volunteer.  Susan examined this practice in a 2004 Hot Topic on the Energize Web site called “Workplace Volunteerism: Have We Thought this Through?“ (http://www.energizeinc.com/hot/2004/04sep.html).  The main objection is that nonprofit donors and government taxpayers have given their money to support that agency’s mission, which – ostensibly by definition – is already in the service of the public. So why are donors and taxpayers obligated to give nonprofit/government employees the “chance” to volunteer?
  • When it comes to something like the Olympics, the argument questioning government work-release time becomes political.  As the CBC stories pointed out, many Canadians are already disturbed at the amount of tax money being spent on the Olympics in Vancouver – the amount officially budgeted.  So it’s easy to see that government employees “permitted” to take work time to volunteer for the Olympics can be interpreted as a back door for yet more public expense.
  • Announcing the work-release plan so far in advance of the Games calls some other things into question.  Why not wait until it’s clear how many people truly volunteer for the open positions?  Given the recent record in other host cities of overwhelming numbers of applications, why the pessimism? Why assume there will not be enough volunteers and go directly to government employees (some of which, we’d bet, were planning to volunteer on their own time anyway)?   Further, what is the likelihood of employer coercion here?  Will the BC government be so concerned about staffing the Games that it will “strongly suggest” employees fill the volunteer slots?  How do we feel about that?

Mind you, all of this is happening in Canada.  What’s the political connotation or coercion taking place in China?  Or, to take a positive view, might the Olympics introduce thousands of Chinese to genuine voluntary participation in something they really care about?  What might this mean to future community projects in that huge country?  In China, we are already seeing some of the same spontaneous volunteering around natural disasters − such as the recent earthquake in Sichuan province − that we see in other countries that have a much longer history of entrepreneurial volunteer participation.

Why Not More Continuity?

As we said in the beginning, every four years (really every two years, now that the Winter and Summer Games are separated) the Olympic Games seem to reinvent volunteering.  We know this because every host city goes through the same flurry of activity − searching for volunteer coordinators, announcing the need for volunteers and creating its own system.

Should there be more continuity?  We don’t know how much is passed on from Olympics to Olympics, but we do hope the flame of volunteer management processes, databases and a big book of recommendations travels around the world.  Is there someone at the international Olympic Organizing Committee charged with the responsibility for volunteering?  Or is this seen as a “host” function to be designed locally?   

 Are past volunteer coordinating staff ever brought back for their experience?  What about past  volunteers?   Has anyone ever thought of a continuing assignment for people who might actually commit for every Olympic Games?

What Happens When the Games Move On?

Every Olympic Games host city plunges into a whirl of activity that lasts for several years and comes to a fever pitch for two weeks. . . and then ends.  Along the way, all sorts of stakeholders have found ways to cooperate: government units on all levels, businesses large and small, schools, real estate developers and myriads of community groups, including faith communities.  Has any community ever managed to continue the good will and cooperation engendered to create the volunteer structure in an Olympic city after the event? 

This desire for long-term gain is always expressed, but rarely lasts long.  Some things − such as public use of buildings, roads and space created for the Games − remain useful.  But volunteer enthusiasm either fades or, more importantly, is not redirected to other continuing civic projects.

In Sydney, Olympic coordinators asked volunteers if they wanted to remain on a contact list to be called for service on behalf of other public events.  Many hundreds signed on and have since been involved sporadically in different ways.  But the effort is not well known and is based on nostalgia for the Olympics, rather than growing in force with a look ahead.  There’s the embryo of a great idea here, though, and it deserves attention.

There is hope in this area for the Olympics in Beijing.  With the assistance of the Olympics organizing committee and the United Nations, China is involved in a “Green Olympics” project:

Green Olympics forms part of a three-year, USD 1.4 million Olympic Volunteers Project, undertaken with the China International Centre for Economic and Technical Exchanges and running until June 2010. It is not only promoting volunteerism through the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, but also demonstrates volunteerism as a resource for development. The other main components comprise training 10,000 volunteer leaders and post-Games programmes to contribute to China’s social and economic development through volunteerism.
(www.olympic.org/uk/news/olympic_news/full_story_uk.asp?id=2624)

Subinay Nandy, the United Nations Development Program country director for China, commented about the effort: “The 2008 Olympic Games offers China and the world an opportunity to take a big step forward in raising global awareness of the power contributed by volunteers, not only to sport, but also to the well being of whole society worldwide.”

We can only hope so.

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