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What is "Quality" Volunteering?

What is "Quality" Volunteering?

The European Commission has declared 2011 to be the European Year of Volunteering (EYV), which coincides with the United Nations’ International Year of Volunteers + 10. Several "working groups" have been formed to discuss and report on various themes of EYV.  As Director of Development and Innovation at Volunteering England, e-Volunteerism’s editorial team member Rob Jackson has been asked to chair EYV's Working Group on “Quality Volunteering.” As described in a concept paper he shared with us, the mission of this Working Group is to:

  • Work towards a common understanding of “quality volunteering.”
  • Clarify the roles and responsibilities of the organizers of volunteering in ensuring quality volunteering experiences.
  • Identify and disseminate good practice in the field of quality assurance and quality assessment tools used by volunteer organisations.

Reading this got us thinking. We suspect that anyone can resonate with the goal of providing “quality” volunteering. Quality is an admirable label. Some alternate words in the thesaurus are excellence, superiority, class, eminence, value, and work.  But what exactly does it mean when applied to volunteering?  Note as well that in second mission objective stated in b) above, the Working Group adds another twist by moving from quality volunteering to quality volunteering experiences

The second Points of View we ever wrote back in 2001 played with the word “advanced” (Advanced Training: What Do We Mean?).  So now we’ll tackle the issue of quality. Particularly, does quality help define the following:

  • What volunteers do?
  • How well they do it?
  • The impact of volunteer effort?
  • The manner in which they are engaged by organizations? (Or is this more related to the quality of the volunteering experience?)

What Volunteers Do

For over a decade, the Points of Light Foundation here in the United States spoke of volunteering as a vital force in addressing “serious social problems.”  Susan began to refer to these wryly as SSPs. A catch phrase can seem to define something important, but doesn’t necessarily stand up to closer scrutiny. In the case of SSPs, we always wondered:

  • Who defines “serious”? And what’s a “social problem”? Do these always refer to things such as hunger, child abuse, homelessness? What about something like illiteracy, which is of great concern but does not threaten lives? 
  • Is it the job of volunteers to tackle life-threatening problems or is that what government or large nonprofit organizations are for?  And what if volunteers serve through organizations that deal with hunger, etc., but are only permitted to do tasks that are clerical and “support” in nature?  Are they truly working on SSPs?
  • Should volunteers be doing mainly “hands on” work to alleviate the results or symptoms of SSPs (feed the hungry) or should they be strategically working as advocates to prevent the problems in the first place (end hunger)?  The former is praised as good deeds, the latter threatens those in power by working towards systemic change.
  • Should we create a hierarchy of causes and, if so, where does this leave cultural arts, recreation, heritage, and all the activities that make life livable even if it’s possible to survive without them?  What would happen to all of these things if volunteers were pushed to only deal with life and death?

The point, of course, is that there are many essential ways to make a community better.  We need volunteers to focus on the sick and the fit, on bread and roses, on humans and animals and the earth itself.  Elevating certain types of service can unfairly dismiss others.  For government agencies to do this can be particularly pernicious.

All of this is relevant to the new European discussion of “quality” volunteering.  Some volunteers want to be leaders, pioneers, or change agents; others simply want to be of help in maintaining services or alleviating suffering. Is one approach of higher quality than the other? 

What about duration of service? Is there a way to compare the quality of a 30-second micro-volunteering act by cell phone against the year-round commitment of a mentor to a teen?  One option is not to compare activities to one another, but rather to assure that any volunteering has purpose.

How Well They Do It

Perhaps the quality factor does not reside in the positions volunteers fill but in how expertly volunteers do their activities.  Any type of volunteer work can be done exceptionally, or well, or half-heartedly, or poorly.  So is the objective to assure that every volunteer does the best job?

If we go in that direction, how do we measure it?  As an absolute standard of performance? As a comparison to how well paid staff might perform similar work?  As a comparison to other volunteers, and is that regardless of how long they have performed the work or what type of training they have received?

Who should assess the quality of volunteer work?  The organization deploying the volunteer?  The recipient of service?  Which raises the interesting question of how often we ask those meant to benefit from volunteering what they think of how they are served.

Despite all the talk from funders about measuring the “impact of volunteer work” there has been very little funding that would actually enable an organization to determine real impact and real change among either individual recipients of service or the community.  As a result, much of the “impact” data being reported by volunteer programs is – to put it bluntly – manufactured to meet the demands of funding sources and not always connected to what is really happening as a result of volunteer efforts.  We would be better off if funders stopped picking on volunteer organizations and instead funded meta-research efforts that really tried to identify the ways in which volunteers can best make a difference – both in whom they serve and the kinds of activities that might best be provided by volunteers.  We think we know some of the answers to these questions (see, for example, our Points of View for April 2010, “What Are Volunteers Good At?,”)   but much of that is simply educated guessing.

The Impact of Volunteer Effort

Excellent performance is irrelevant if the effort is expended on meaningless or useless activity.  We think a great question to ask about any volunteer work is “does this matter to someone other than the volunteer?”    Or the corollary, “are we wasting time and skills better needed elsewhere?”

One of the down sides of service-learning, through which students are sent into the community to apply classroom studies, is that all too often the young volunteers and their teachers alike are primarily concerned with getting the chance to try out their ideas regardless of whether such activity is actually needed by the agency or its clients.  So the internship might be a wonderful volunteering experience for the student, but not matter a whit to the community.  Some volunteering activities involving seniors have a similar attitude; one might almost think the intent of the volunteering was to provide a babysitting experience for the volunteers – keeping them out of the way and safe from harm but not allowing them to make much of a contribution to the community.

In the same vein, a volunteer of any age can love his or her work to the point of resisting necessary change to adapt to new or evolving needs.  “Satisfaction surveys” are common forms of evaluation for volunteer programs, yet they do not reveal much of importance.  To us, the priority is doing what is vital and, in the process, making sure that volunteers are happy doing it.

Having an impact rarely means complete success.   It’s incremental:  helping one person, moving one step closer towards a solution, keeping the organization’s doors stay open for one more year.

To us the real issue is whether or not organizations set impact goals for volunteers.  If an organization sees having volunteers as an end unto itself, then the outcomes of the work volunteers contribute take second place.  Strategic volunteer involvement, on the other hand, only recruits volunteers when there is a clear and important way they can make a difference.

The Manner in Which They Are Engaged

So how an organization approaches volunteer involvement is a big part of the picture.  The Working Group seeks to find “good practices” and various quality assurance and assessment tools that can be replicated.  All well and good, but…

The bureaucracy monster once again rears its ugly head!  The very language of “quality assurance and assessment” places volunteers solidly into organizational structure, policies, and systems.  We understand that and have spent much of our careers advocating for it.  But the volunteer-as-unpaid-staff is only one model of service.  Worse, it is often the approach that rapidly loses quality as more rules and restrictions are placed on what volunteers can and cannot do.  You may find this statement odd coming from two people who have spent much of their lives advocating for more organization in volunteer management, but we have always been aware that a structured volunteer program is only one approach and not always the best one.

The European Commission is very concerned with social inclusion.  Further in the Working Group concept paper, it says:

Ensuring quality volunteering for all: identifying barriers within volunteer organisations to engage diverse groups such as people with disabilities, those from migrant backgrounds and ethnic minority groups, those who may have been or are mental health service users, and ex-offenders and formulate proposals for overcoming these barriers. 

This is a marvelous vision, but also shows how hard it is to create uniform ways for volunteers to serve.  Rather than seeking standards of quality, perhaps for volunteering a more important factor is strategic flexibility:

  • Offering a variety of activities that all matter but to varying degrees, permitting all volunteers to serve to their best abilities, and encouraging volunteers to develop their own approaches and assignments
  • Formal assignments and informal helping, with a mix of work in structured organizational settings and less structured all-volunteer efforts
  • Long-term commitment to solving problems but also the chance to give time and talent spontaneously
  • Screening procedures for protection of the vulnerable but not necessarily applied to every activity when it makes little sense
  • Defining the needs that volunteers can address while leaving room for creativity in how to meet those needs (the social entrepreneur approach)
  • Alleviating worrisome symptoms of social problems and also dealing head on with the causes so as to end the problems once and for all

Like the Supreme Court Justice who could not define pornography but stated that he knew it “when I see it,” we can all recognize the presence or absence of quality.  The challenge for the Working Group and for all of us is to articulate what we mean and how we can extend quality into every type of volunteering. We would all agree that volunteering is much too important a thing to be treated in a trivial manner. And we no doubt agree that focusing volunteer efforts on providing a “quality” return is something worth seriously pursuing.

To add or view comments

Wed, 01/19/2011
Hi Steve and Susan. Thanks for this article, both in terms of it raising awareness of the European Year and the work I and many others are doing on the Working Groups but also for the thought provoking discussion around quality. I am particularly struck by your observation that "We would be better off if funders stopped picking on volunteer organizations and instead funded meta-research efforts that really tried to identify the ways in which volunteers can best make a difference – both in whom they serve and the kinds of activities that might best be provided by volunteers." This is exactly the kind of policy reccomendation it is within our purview to make to the European Commission at the end of the year so I'd love to discuss this further with you. Finally, subscribers to e-Volunteerism might be interested to visit the EYV2011 Alliance website at for more information on the year.