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Calling All Volunteers - What’s in a Name?

30 July 2015 at 11:55 am
Lina Caneva
What’s in a name? Quite a lot it would seem, if the extensive and at times impassioned conversation about the definition of volunteering has been anything to go by, writes the CEO of Volunteering Tasmania, Adrienne Picone.

Lina Caneva | 30 July 2015 at 11:55 am


Calling All Volunteers - What’s in a Name?
30 July 2015 at 11:55 am

What’s in a name? Quite a lot it would seem, if the extensive and at times impassioned conversation about the definition of volunteering has been anything to go by, writes the CEO of Volunteering Tasmania, Adrienne Picone.


Volunteering Australia has been posing the question, “what is volunteering?” over the last 18 months in information sessions, workshops, conferences and online. Volunteers, managers of volunteers, peak body and volunteer-involving organisation representatives, and thought leaders have thrown their thoughts into the mix for consideration by VA.


The output of this widespread conversation was released this week. It totals 13 words, is a mere sentence but it manages to pare back the rhetoric and encapsulate the very essence of donating time.

The previous definition was developed 19 years ago in a time when our assumptions and ideas of volunteering were quite different. Back in the 1990s it was expected that volunteers contributed only in the Not for Profit sector and in formal volunteer positions often resembling paid roles.

Volunteering looks very different in 2015 and as a result we needed to change the way that we define it. New forms of giving are emerging all the time against the backdrop of the internet and of concepts like corporate social responsibility and episodic volunteering.

We need to have a common and contemporary viewpoint to reflect the way that people are giving their time. The new definition casts the volunteering net wider and broader than ever before. It challenges some long held stereotypes and encourages people to recognise the many and varied forms of giving they do as important and valued.

When we use the label “volunteering” now it’s not just the formal volunteering that takes place in a Not for Profit setting. We’re extending our reach to include informal, virtual and episodic volunteering as well as including skilled volunteering and corporate volunteering. We are referring to the giving that takes place in every pocket of our community that meets the brief of “time willingly given for the common good and without financial gain”.

Volunteering Australia’s new definition acknowledges the dynamic nature of our contemporary volunteering sector and seeks to recognise and improve the language and descriptions of the many areas of positive civic participation.

Whilst extremely valuable, not all forms of community giving can be called volunteering. Areas such as philanthropy, for example, may well contain a component of volunteering, but at the core is the donation of a resource. This is not to say that philanthropy is in any way less than volunteering but we now have an understanding of the broader family that volunteering sits within.

A definition of volunteering, by its very nature means some activities will fall inside the volunteer family and some will fall outside, but the real strength of the new definition lies in its inclusivity. We now have the capability to understand the depth and breadth of volunteering in all its guises. As a result we will be able to measure the social, economic and cultural value of volunteering in Australia and future proof our communities through evidence informed planning. More people will be recognised for the important contributions they make to our community.

Volunteering Australia may be the “keeper” of the definition but the real owner of the definition is the volunteering sector itself. With the release of the new definition of volunteering the conversation may change tack but it will need to continue at every level.

Volunteering Australia will need to continue to work with some of our major partners such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Department of Social Services to work together to implement the change.

At the State level, the State and Territory peak bodies will be working within their jurisdictions to support volunteer involving organisations to adopt the new definition and embed it into the vision and mission of their volunteer program.

The new definition, the supporting explanatory notes and comprehensive FAQs can be found on the VA website. Feedback can be directed to Volunteering Australia

About the author: Adrienne Picone in the CEO of Volunteering Tasmania which led the review project into the new definition of volunteering on behalf of Volunteering Australia.

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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