One of the age-old debates in the volunteering movement, often raised when organisations struggle to recruit volunteers, is whether we need a new word for volunteering (for example, v’s seemingly aborted campaign that we talk about favours instead) or whether we need to change the association people have with the v word.
I’m firmly in the supporters club for the latter option. I think we’ve wasted so much time and energy over the years debating what else we might call volunteering. Energy that could have been directed into delivering a great volunteering experience for people instead.
So how might we change people’s perceptions of volunteering?
To start with, we have to understand what their perceptions are.
My firm belief – borne out of years of experience – is that the image of the old person (frequently a woman) who gives significant amounts of time with an almost super-human dedication to the organisation is what most people think of when they think of volunteers.
This is often perpetuated by the volunteer involving organisations who frequently recognise the contributions of such volunteers by publicising their achievements in the media. Consider these examples from the USA of the publicity for Jack Lindsley and Ann Hoppe.
Reading these articles I have no doubt that Jack and Ann deserve all the plaudits they get. But think about what messages about volunteering other people reading these articles might get: you have to commit for the long haul; you have to give thousands of hours of your time; you’ll still be doing it when you are 100; you’ll be asked to take on more and more responsibility etc.
My Australian colleague Martin J Cowling observes that, in his experience, about 85 per cent of media coverage of volunteers reinforces these kinds of messages about volunteering.
We need to change the narrative. We need to start putting up examples of people just like you and me. People who lead busy lives, with multiple demands on their time, yet manage to fit volunteering into their existence. People who aren’t celebrities or, even worse, politicians. Dare I say it, ordinary people doing often extraordinary things as volunteers.
We need to show people that they too can volunteer, they can accommodate giving some of their precious time to others without it demanding years of their lives.
So, here’s the challenge for 2012.
If you don’t have examples of such people who you can hold up as examples of volunteering then ask yourself if your volunteer programme is really oriented to the needs of people in the 21st century and commit to learning how to adapt your offer so you’re relevant in this modern age.
If you do have examples of real people – ordinary people – who might help to change the public perception of volunteers, then please commit to sharing those examples with others rather than perpetuating the image of the older superhero.
Here’s to a year in which we start to change people’s views of volunteering.