Monday, 23 January 2012

The soul of volunteerism

I was in London before Christmas and had an opportunity to meet up with someone I have known in our volunteering field for many years.  During the course of our conversation about the state of volunteering and where the movement is going I had a small epiphany.

The exact context of the conversation was whether volunteer managers have too slavishly followed HR practice and over-bureaucratised the process of becoming a volunteer.  As Thomas and Jonathan McKee put it in their book "The New Breed", volunteering is less and less viewed as an alternative to work but as something we do in our discretionary time, so called 'serious leisure'.

If that's true (and I think it is) then we need to ask what other leisure activity do we do that requires lengthy application forms, paperwork, and work-like practices?

That got me thinking because, of course, systems and processes are important in an effective volunteer programme.  The issue is not that we have them but that they have become too much of what defines volunteer management and volunteering (consider the prominence of CRBs in association with volunteering for example) rather than the spirit and essence of what makes volunteering great.

That made me think of the human body.

To draw an analogy between the volunteering and the body, systems and processes are perhaps the skeleton.  We need our skeleton to hold our bodies up, to ensure there is a structure and form to what we do.  But our skeletons do not make us what we are.  They do not give us our spirit, our soul, our essence, our personalities.

So much of volunteer management practice is focused on building the skeleton, strengthening our frame.  But what about getting to the heart and soul of volunteering?

For me, that's about bringing the human dimension back into a more prominent position in volunteer management.  Its about regaining a focus on this being a people business and our systems and processes serving that rather than dominating, in the same way that a skeleton serves our purpose but doesn't make us who we are.

What do you think?


  1. Very interesting take on volunteer management---a skeleton without a soul is pretty lifeless.

  2. I'd like to direct those interested in the issues raised in this blog to this excellent post on i-volunteer:

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