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What is Real Volunteering? The Debate

10 September 2013 at 11:59 am
Staff Reporter
The scope and definition of ‘volunteering’ was hotly debated in a panel discussion during the final day of the National Conference on Volunteering in Adelaide.

Staff Reporter | 10 September 2013 at 11:59 am


What is Real Volunteering? The Debate
10 September 2013 at 11:59 am

The scope and definition of ‘volunteering’ was hotly debated in a panel discussion during the final day of the National Conference on Volunteering in Adelaide.

Evelyn O'Loughlin and Robert Costanza at the debate.

Volunteering to qualify for welfare payments, foster caring as volunteering, and incentivised volunteering programs were the topics that incited the most passionate responses.  

The panel brought together some big personalities and big opinions in the form of the event’s keynote speakers and major contributors, including:

  • Debra Allcock Tyler, keynote speaker and CEO of the Directory of Social Change.
  • Professor Robert Costanza, keynote speaker and ecological economist of the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.
  • Dr Duncan Ironmonger AM, Australian household economist from the Department of Economics at the University of Melbourne.
  • Amanda Blair, Conference MC.
  • Andrew Heslop, social entrepreneur, community advocate and founder of Neighbor day.
  • Evelyn O’Loughlin, CEO of Volunteering SA/NT.

Volunteering for Welfare

The significance of volunteers’ motives was a recurring theme in the discussion.

This included those who did 8-25 hours of volunteering per week as a requirement to receive welfare payments, which the panel was split on.

Evelyn O’Loughlin was firm in her stance that motives were not of great significance.

“I don’t ever believe that there’s a hierarchy of volunteering or that some are more worthy than others. Organisations should do proper due diligence around finding right person for right role.”

“If they don’t match the role, don’t take them.”

She did acknowledge that people motivated by welfare are less likely to fit criteria, however.

“It can pose a number of problems, in terms of motivation particularly.”

MC Amanda Blair said that she had seen volunteers use their experience to go on and seek out opportunities that ultimately got them off welfare.

“If someone’s passionate about the role, that’s an okay thing, but there has to be that passion,” she said.

Social Entrepreneur Andrew Heslop focused on the way welfare recipients could benefit.

“It’s a good idea in concept but in terms of volunteering being linked to Centrelink payments, it’s best suited to someone who’s been long term unemployed, perhaps suffering from depression and unable to get motivated.”

“You find those kinds of people who you can bring into an organisation who can be mentored. The way you can change their lives is immeasurable.”

Allcock Tyler had a polar opinion to Heslop.

“Any system which is volunteering for the sake of volunteering is flawed inherently. That doesn’t mean you can’t get anything out of it, but it’s not the point!

“If as a charity you’re forced into taking a volunteer simply because they have to be doing something, I don’t really approve of it,” she said.

Engaging youth in Volunteering

CEO of the Directory of Social Change, Allcock Tyler put forward similar ideas when the issue of youth involvement in volunteering arose.

“About young people, will you just leave them alone! If they want to volunteer, that’s fantastic.”

Andrew Heslop echoed her.

“You’ve got to find the roles that young people are going to be interested in. You can’t force them to do it.”

“Young people don’t like being called volunteers, they like to be something else like participant or engagers.”

“The stats show that one of the most areas for volunteers is actually in sports organisations. That shows where young people can be engaged.”

“Recently with the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games volunteering became very trendy.”

Allcock Tyler, a UK native, passionately criticized 2012’s Olympic volunteering program in response.

“We had a very successful Olympics last year. We had a big thing about the ‘gamesmakers.’ What a load of old crap that was!”

“I’m not saying they didn’t work hard, but it was all happy and light, it was one big party – that isn’t volunteering. That’s not getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning to talk to someone on the phone to get them down off a ledge.”

Heslop believed setting an example was key.

“Some of the evidence is that with young volunteers, their parents have also been volunteers. It’s something passed on through generations.

“43 per cent will become volunteers if their parents did, 23 per cent if they did not,” he said.

Amanda Blair agreed.

“The seeds are sewn when the kids are young. My kids see the impact of my volunteering,” she said.

Evelyn O’Loughlin said young people deserved more credit for what they were doing.

“Forcing kids to do volunteering as part of school program is inherently problematic, although it’s fantastic if they do something like Duke of Ed of their own volition.

“Young people are volunteering but they’re doing it on their terms.

“You need to ask, would you volunteer in your own program? You’ve got to make yourselves attractive.”

Incentivising Volunteering

O’Loughlin’s comments put the notion of incentivising at the centre of the debate, splitting the panel.

She referred to Blue Dots in support of incentives, a UK organisation allowing people to do good deeds for charities in exchange for incentives such as autographs from celebrities or discount vouchers.

The prompted questions from the panel as to whether that idea was in the spirit of volunteering, but O’Loughlin stood her ground.

“I firmly believe there’s no hierarchy of giving and everyone is motivated in different ways,” she said.

Allcock Tyler did not agree.

“Obviously the reason I haven’t heard of this blue dots thing is because it didn’t bloody work! It’s not volunteering! If you’re getting something out of it, how is that volunteering?”

Heslop tried to reason with the panel.

“I think for young people it’s just to give them an incentive to try to open their eyes. At least it’s giving them a bit of momentum.”

“Yet, it is actually costing the bottom line of the business if you’re training these people,” Blair responded.

The restrained Professor Robert Costanza from ANU  took a broader view and suggested a societal change was the key to furthering youth involvement in service.

“It’s important at the earliest possible age to break people out of the individualistic and materialistic culture that surround them these days.

“The psychological evidence is that it makes people happier to give things away, to give their time away.

“It’s important for them to feel like they’re appreciated. That can only help encourage people to do more of it.”

“We need to take status away from consumption and especially conspicuous consumption.”

Foster Care: Is It Volunteering?

The role of incentives was also significant to heated discussion on foster caring.

Blair was adamant that foster caring should not be looked at in financial or incentive-based terms.

“I do think a lot of people think of foster caring as a business and we shouldn’t incentivise it so much,” she said.

“Well that just blows out everyone’s argument about incentives,” O’Loughlin interjected.  

“…but otherwise nobody would be caring for these children,” Blair said.

O’Loughlin spoke of the role of volunteering’s ‘moral contract.’

She said ultimately it would be up to foster caring organisations to decide if they were to define foster carers as volunteers, but her personal stance was clear.  

“Foster caring is paid, foster caring is 24/7, it creates a different moral contract I believe to volunteering. I think caring for a human being is different,” she said.

Heslop disagreed.

“I think it is volunteering. You might receive costs back, but it’s still a voluntary gift of love to be able to put your family and home out for someone who’s clearly in need,” he said.

Dr Duncan Ironmonger, from the University of Melbourne, compared foster caring to home and family-based unpaid work that is often unacknowledged.

He said that those forms of volunteering, such as helping your grandmother, accounted for an amount of time three times that of formal volunteering done in organisations.

The Issues Going Forward

Overcoming the undervaluing of volunteering was the outstanding challenge, all acknowledged.

“It’s largely because here is this assumption that when you volunteer you lose your brains and your skills. You automatically become some sort of socks and sandal wearing hippy who can only paint the scout hut,” Allcock Tyler said.

“The only thing that counts to the politicians and premiers is if it does something to the GDP. I’m sure it does but its not measured. It’s the same with household work,” Ironmonger said.

Costanza agreed.

“The problem is that volunteering is unvalued, not devalued.  Work them [volunteers] into the national account and political debate as a meaningful contribution to societal well being. Focus more of societal well being and get off our addiction to GDP growth at all costs,” he said.

Heslop said a change in perception was needed.

“Once you begin to challenge people about what their perceptions of volunteers are, they say, that’s me, but it’s not captured. There’s a perception that unless you’re working with the Red Cross, it’s not volunteering.

“It’s enormously frustrating that volunteers and volunteering is forgotten until there’s an election and then someone turns up in a fluoro vest to be photographed with a volunteer,” he said.

O’Loughlin closed the passionate debate by urging people to take a stand.

“We are our own worst enemies. We as the Not for Profit sector and Government sector don’t value volunteers. We have to think of ourselves a force to be reckoned with. We must talk ourselves up and we are doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t,” she said.

The National Conference on Volunteering concluded last Friday after three days of sessions bringing together volunteers, volunteer managers, Not for Profits, academics and corporates.

The conference was hosted by Volunteering SA/NT in collaboration with Volunteering Australia.

Read about what else happened at the conference below:

Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews

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  • Kevin Farmer says:

    Volunteering comes in many forms and is motivated by a wide range of returns. Corporate volunteering doesn't seem to have featured in the debate and would have added many different viewpoints to the arguments. I feel that by employing the widest possible definition and applying diverse values to the concept we are opening the door to a vast target audience, many of whom will experience volunteering for the first time and choose to continue. If they are not motivated in the first place then they may never even consider it as a possible form of engagement. Many of the Sydney 2000 Olympic volunteers continue with a range of projects today while some still parade in their well-worn blue jackets, expecting on-going accolades for the time they gave thirteen years ago. So be it. The ones who saw the light are the ones to focus on and may never have entered the field without first being attracted by the glitter of the Olympics. Similarly, of those who enter the field in order to earn welfare, some may be converted while others may gain only personal value but who knows how much of that reduces the cost of mental health treatment further down the track? It sounds like a good debate and thanks Karen for reporting on it here.

  • Lisa McDermott says:

    "We had a very successful Olympics last year. We had a big thing about the ‘gamesmakers.’ What a load of old crap that was!” “I’m not saying they didn’t work hard, but it was all happy and light, it was one big party – that isn’t volunteering. That’s not getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning to talk to someone on the phone to get them down off a ledge.” I was one of those Games Makes Debra and yes we did work hard – up to 12 hours per shift often on our feet for most of that time – and yes we also had some fun while doing that. Last time I looked, however, there was nothing saying that volunteering had to be all doom and gloom to be worthy. If it is was I'm not sure anybody would ever bother getting involved. I was a Team Leader so had to manage a team of up to 12 people for a shift which involved motivating them, making sure they felt supported to do their role, troubleshoot, deal with difficult behaviour from both volunteers and members of the public, schedule each shift to make sure everyone was rotated between roles and got the chance to have a break and anything else that cropped up each shift. I can ensure you at times it was definitely not "one big party". For me this was a bit of a busman's holiday because I am a national volunteer co-ordinator and have been working with and supporting volunteers since 1998. I'd like to think, therefore, that I know a bit about what is and isn't volunteering. I often find myself nodding and agreeing when I read your opinion pieces and articles on speeches you have given. I'm afraid on this occasion, however, I have to disagree.

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