We use paper clips, not people

Every now and again I hear it or read it. It comes up in conversations and articles, sometimes from those who should know much better. I’ll even admit to having done it myself in the past.

I’m referring to people saying they ‘use’ volunteers.  I mentioned this issue in passing last month but, as it is something I feel strongly about, I wanted to make it the focus of this month’s blog.On one level I agree that volunteers are a resource that contributes to the fulfilment of our organisations’ missions. In that sense they are just like paper clips, photocopiers, staples, staplers etc…

But volunteers are people and they take an active role in fulfilling our missions. They don’t sit there waiting to be used. They are engaged and involved in our causes, sometimes with a passion that borders on excessive. Yet we seem to allow talk of using volunteers to pass unchallenged. We wouldn’t dream of talking about using (financial) donors, or using paid staff, so why is it OK to talk about using volunteers?

Some of you may be thinking this is mere semantics, but I think the language we use around volunteers and volunteering speaks volumes about the way they are viewed, regarded and respected in our organisations. That was my point last month.

If we talk of using volunteers, putting them on a par with the office photocopier, then we should not be surprised if volunteers are seen as providing a far from meaningful contribution to our work. If, however, we talk about involving and engaging them, there is implied within that a much more constructive, positive and meaningful attitude to the contribution volunteers provide.

What has been encouraging since I first challenged talk of using volunteers on my own blog last year is the way people have embraced the argument and started to challenge others.

For example, @lizaface came across Volunteer Match (the US equivalent of Do-It) talking about ‘using’ volunteers.  @lizaface challenged the organisation and Volunteer Match posted on Twitter to say it was definitely going to change it.

I picked NAVCA up on its language in the new policy position paper on volunteering which it recently issues. Its response was fast and straightforward – it was going to change it so it didn’t talk about using volunteers (although at the time of writing this change hasn’t yet been made).

One volunteer manager I know even challenged ACAS who has referred to using volunteers in guidance it had issued. That phrase has since disappeared from its website.

Examples like this have even bred a Twitter hashtag for people to report and challenge others for saying they use volunteers – #weusethingsnotpeople.

So my plea this month is that we all stop talking about ‘using’ volunteers; that we start using more ‘correct’ language like involving and engaging volunteers; and that we challenge others when we come across ‘using’ volunteers in speech or text.

2 Responses to “We use paper clips, not people”

  1. Rob Jackson

    Thanks for that clarification Barney. My point was you were positive about changing it, which is more than some are. Thank you.


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