Is our definition of volunteering out of date?

A couple of weeks ago, Volunteering Australia announced its decision to review its definition of volunteering. The chief executive of Volunteering Tasmania, Adrienne Picone, wrote a helpful blog outlining the issues involved – it is well worth a read.

I wonder if the time is right for us to go through a similar exercise here in the UK, and revisit what exactly we mean by the word volunteering?

Since the global financial crisis in 2008 we’ve seen more high-profile debate about the nature of volunteering. This has focused on a number of issues, including:

  • Whether volunteers are displacing employees from their roles in order that organisations can save money
  • Whether volunteering should take place in the private sector
  • Where the dividing line falls between volunteering and unpaid community work, for example in the Department of Work and Pensions’ welfare to work programmes
  • The nature of compulsion, and whether people forced to give their time (for example, in exchange for state benefits) are volunteers or ‘voluntolds’

None of this is new. Years ago the then National Association of Volunteer Bureaux had a clear line that giving unpaid time to any profit-making activity (including fundraising and charity retail) was not volunteering. Today, that seems patently absurd. The debates have evolved, volunteering has evolved, and we would now embrace volunteering in such settings.

Even the previously untouchable issue of volunteers in the private sector has moved on. Nobody blinked an eye at 70,000 people working unpaid for the profit-making body Locog that organised the London 2012 Olympic and Paralypmic Games. NCVO now has a project looking at volunteering in care homes, where many more private sector operators are engaging volunteer support.

I believe we now need to have a proper debate about whether the definitions we use for volunteering are fit for purpose in the 21st century United Kingdom. Here are just two questions (amongst many others) I think need attention:

  1. How can (or should) we address the question of free will? How do we draw a distinction, for example, between the young person, who must do some volunteering because it will help them get a place at university or a paid job, and the guide leader who has to volunteer because of the peer pressure from children and friends, or the offender who must give time as part of their court sentence?
  2. Should our definitions continue to be written from the perspective of the organisations involved in volunteering (Volunteer Involving Organisations, infrastructure, government etc.), or should we look more at how individuals who give time define themselves as volunteers?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Perhaps the UK Volunteering Forum has a role to play in setting the terms and leading the discussion? However done, we need to follow the lead of our Australian colleagues and ensure we are clear about what we understand the V word to mean in our rapidly changing world.

I leave the last word to the late volunteering co-ordinator and writer Ivan Scheier who, for me, came up with my favourite definition of volunteering, not least because it is one of the very few written from the perspective of the volunteer:

“Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, in a cause you consider good.

7 Responses to “Is our definition of volunteering out of date?”

  1. Tracey Le Gallez

    We have been debating this for years with some high moral views on what they consider to be volunteering but I believe those who come to us through placements and to gain experience are still volunteers.

    We are not so fortunate to have an endless pool of of philanthropic individuals who all give their time for the cause. I am not so naive to believe that everyone who volunteers fully understands the strategy vision and mission of the organisation they volunteer for. People volunteer for many reasons some of which will be deeply personal and some selfish such as fun and friendship. Surely its incumbent upon us that once they have made it over the threshold that we then make it the best experience ever? We can then evangelize on the merits of the charity and of volunteering.

    Its not mutually exclusive to think that a person can both be on a placement (so has reduced choice) and still enjoy and feel the benefit of the volunteering experience. I have had many such individuals themselves evangelize after the experience. Many of which would never of chosen to do so of their own volition prior to the placement.This does enable us to reach a hard to reach aspect of the community and spread understanding of charity.

    Volunteering is not always seen as a sexy past time especially if you are trying to attract them to little known and understood charities who do not benefit from the wealth to advertise or the emotive “sexiness” of some of the cause.

    “Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, in a cause you consider good.”

    I believe fully in this but the reality is that charities can not exist without the support of volunteers. I would not support any scheme that put an individual at a disadvantage for not supporting but sometimes people need a nudge to do something good and to help them feel good about themselves. Volunteering can do that.

  2. Kate Bowgett

    I might have less of a problem with for profit organisations – (meaning organisations who aim to make a profit for individual shareholders, not organisations like charity shops, or social enterprises who put profit back into supporting a ’cause’) – involving people as volunteers if they treated their paid staff well. Care homes are a good example because it is a sector where employees are treated very badly. I know a lot of people who work in care homes and for care agencies. Wages are low, zero hours contracts, or employment of ‘freelancers’ to avoid paying holiday pay etc. are rife. Staff struggle into work (endangering clients) when they are sick because they don’t get sick pay, can’t get any kind of work life balance (including being able to offer time as volunteers) because of zero hours contracts, and burn themselves out to the extent that they’re not as effective at their jobs. Care homes being able to involve people for no pay (whether as volunteers or as placements) adds to the problem. We’re really naive if we just trot out the ‘all volunteering is good line’. At it’s best volunteer involvement creates responsive vibrant organisations, at its worse it perpetuates low pay and poor employment practices and drains skills and talent

  3. Rera

    In response to the second question you have posed, I would be
    interested in hearing from the 39% of people in Adrienne’s blog, who identified themselves as “[giving] or donat[ing] their time to the community, unpaid” but not “[doing] unpaid work for a not for profit organisation”. How would they define themselves? If their definition is something very different from what we commonly consider to be volunteering, then we absolutely need to have a rethink.

    The first question I found particularly interesting. I’m an active volunteer across several roles. Some just because I love the things I do. For me, there’s something awe-inspiring and fundamentally enjoyable about standing at the side of a race screaming support for runners, so I regularly take on those roles because they’re a fun way to spend my time.

    Then there’s the street fundraising. Most of the time it’s boring work, sometimes even downright depressing, but I do it because I believe in the causes and it gives me an enormous sense of well-being.

    Finally, I have dedicated myself to other roles, ones I don’t actually enjoy at all. I’ve done them to gain an insight into a cause or charity or develop my own understanding of volunteering in such a role and sometimes, because I think it will help my career.

    Whilst technically I have free will in all circumstances, as I am choosing to do this – I have no NEED to – my very different motivations put me firmly in different categories of volunteer from one role to the next. But is this apparent to my fellow volunteers or the VIOs? I would guess not. This makes me question how much we need to look into why people volunteer, or whether we use motivations only to determine how we keep a volunteer engaged over time.

    However, even as I write this I’m arguing with myself. Because in my day job as a VM, I’m the first to admit that I have the ‘why question’ on my application forms and I always like to read the answer, favouring the applications who offer the most altruistic reasons (I do, of course, realise the hypocrisy in that given all I have said above).

    So well done Rob, a great couple of questions to get us thinking. Unfortunately they’re ones that appear to have broken my brain, so I can’t quite make it as far as a conclusion.

  4. Deanna Cole

    Oh my goodness, like minds think alike. I was posed the question this weekend, “What is your definition of a beginner, intermediate, and advanced volunteer?” I wrote a short blog . Based upon the feedback I’m getting, I agree that there are layers to the definition and it also is so diverse from program to program. I feel that there really should be some thought put into defining both by the “big orgs” and just as important by volunteers themselves. Great article. I look forward to the continued discussions.

  5. Chris Reed

    At risk of doing my usual and talking about your questions without actually answering them, I think it’s great that you’ve highlighted the Australian debate. This is a fantastic topic that often generates heated debate amongst those within the sector who feel they ‘own’ our definition of volunteering here in the UK, but who are we to tell individuals what is or is not volunteering, or indeed suitable volunteering? (That’s almost answered your first question).

    I think Kate is right, the key thing has to be the quality of the experience. From the perspective of a large charity we often focus on the formal volunteer experience, but we have to remember that so much volunteering happens informally and those people getting together to do some good locally will never consider themselves to be part of a ‘sector’. They are doing what they want to do, sometimes what they may have been strongly encouraged to do, but for their own reasons. If they have clubbed together to support a care home, reopen a police station front counter or a library, or chosen to do any of these on an individual basis, is that wrong? If on the other hand an organisation is actively seeking to exploit volunteers in order to do away with paid staff I think that’s a different matter.

    In answer to your second question, NO, we should absolutely
    look to volunteers themselves!

    We have to talk to individuals and not just those in our organisations who are already volunteering. We need to engage those people who give of their time but do not call themselves volunteers (the age old example is coaches in grass roots sport, but there are many more). Those who do so below any organisational radars. How do we take into account the time people give, unpaid, when culturally they don’t have a concept of or even a literal translation for the word volunteer or volunteering? Does this mean we don’t count or value what they do? We also need to talk to people who do nothing (the challenge will be finding someone to admit to that in the first place) according to our current definition at least.

    Volunteering clearly has and always will mean different things to different people. I would suggest that perhaps our current definition supposes there is a universal box into which we can place all people who do stuff unpaid. That might work for government and organisations, but clearly not for individuals as the Australian debate has highlighted!

  6. Deanna Cole

    Rob, I looked up various definitions. Very interesting read 🙂
    I feel, that Volunteer defined as a noun, verb and adj. boils down to the word…freewill. However, I love Ivan’s quote and I’m going to have to get that posted on my wall.

    IMHO I don’t believe that the term Volunteer should be loosely given to all persons doing something for no “pay check”. Based on your examples above in Q.1. When I think of a young person with prerequisite “volunteer” activities to graduate; as a “student” doing a “community service project” and his/her compensation for the service activity is a diploma. The person trying to gain employment, and is volunteering service is a volunteer. The guide leader volunteer wasn’t in any handcuffs to volunteer (lol) but still chose to be a volunteer. As far as offenders, they are not voluntarily volunteering; they are doing community service based on a consequential action, and their compensation is based on what the legal system states….for example not going to jail, not having to pay a larger fine; its a disciplinary action. [So then are we going to say persons in jail are volunteers? They sit in jail and don’t get paid.] –

    Those that are doing required community service projects are not doing so voluntarily. I think we’re starting to morph “un-paid” work into volunteer work definition, as the end all be all to being a volunteer. I believe the key identifier to defining a volunteer, is “free will”. [Free will volunteers vs Required Community Service.] IMHO folks that are working for no required compensation and nothing in return, are volunteers; And those that are working for a requirement or expected deliverable, are not volunteers….they are unpaid community service providers.
    just some musings….thanks for the great article. v/r Deanna


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