Monday, 18 November 2013

What's in a word?

I've recently finished reading The Institute for Volunteer Research's (IVR) excellent new report on microvolunteering. Yes, that's right, something about microvolunteering that I am enthusiastic about.

As I have said in other blogs, microvolunteering is often portrayed as the knight in shining armour come to save the damsel in distress that is volunteering. It is claimed to be the magical solution that will engage people who are otherwise put off volunteering and start them down a long and happy road of lifelong service. It is evangelistically portrayed as the best thing ever to happen to volunteering without a single shred of meaningful evidence to back those assertions.

In their accessible and readable report, IVR take a more measured look at microvolunteering. They cut through the hype and hoopla to explore the realities of the concept, identifying opportunities and challenges for volunteer involving organisations and seeking out evidence to back up the claims the microvolunteering evangelists make. Its a great report and well worth a read.

We're also promised practical guidance on microvolunteering, drawn from a number of case study organisations IVR worked with in their research. Thsi is due late November and will add to the existing resources of organisations like Help From Home so that leaders and managers of volunteer can judge for themselves whether microvolunteering is for them and their volunteers.

One aspect that IVR touch on is the re-branding by organisations of some existing shorter term volunteering opportunities as microvolunteering. This is could be a consequence of organisations "sexing up" what they already offer by playing on new and trendy language.

One one level there is nothing wrong with giving something a new name to fit with in-vogue terminology. It is certainly nothing new, whether to volunteerism or any other walk of life. But I think we need to be really aware of the potential consequences.

Here are some examples.

A few years ago when the then government started developing more ideas about mandatory volunteering as part of citizenship or welfare requirements, the position many in the volunteering movement took was "so long as government don't call it volunteering it's ok". That was intended to protect the values of volunteering (and act of free will being key) from corruption by government. To an extent it worked but there have been two significant consequences.

First, government now feels they can get away with any such scheme so long as they don't call it volunteering. This has led to more of these initiatives which they defend accordingly. Except the public don't necessarily make the same distinctions we might. They see people working unpaid and being forced to do it and they make associations with volunteering anyway, in part because the media might still use this language even if ministers do not. So instead of facing up to a real debate, the volunteering movement could be accused of ducking the issue whilst the protection of volunteering they thought they were establishing hasn't been as effective as they thought.

Second, by saying "so long as you don't call it volunteering were not bothered", the volunteering movement has marginalised itself from having any relevant voice into policy circles that decide on such initiatives. After all, so long as they don't call it volunteering, why should ministers seek to engage with volunteering bodies over their ideas. As a result we get new schemes dreamt up with no real though given to the execution or resourcing of these by volunteer involving organisations.

Another example is around the more recent debates about internships.

In large part these debates have become higher profile because use of the word intern, especially in an unpaid context, has become more prevalent in recent years. From what I can see this seems to be for two reasons: individuals describe their volunteering as an internship because that term carries more weight with potential employers than the v-word does; organisations re-badge their volunteering opportunities as internships to attract more people as a result.

The consequence? First, by colluding with the idea that internship sounds more professional than volunteering we collude with the devaluing of volunteering, subordinating it to a lower class status below real work (i.e. paid) and internships. Second, we open up a can of worms such as that created by the recent debates on unpaid internships which - and let's not ignore this at all - risk fundamentally undermining the concepts of volunteering many of us hold so dear.

So back to microvolunteering.

As I said earlier, I really like the IVR report. There is much in there that I comment to anyone interested in the topic. But I want to add a real note of caution around the emerging trend for organisations to take what they alreday do and call it microvolunteering in order to attract people by using this sexy new word. Because if what organisation are doing is renaming something but still delivering the same unrewarding opportunity, doing little or nothing to change their actual practice in volunteer enagagement, then just as in the examples above, we risk real and potentially serious consequences. We risk deceiving people into volunteering with us, getting them all excited about our volunteer opportunities and then they get past the hype and sexy new words and find the same old things being done that never attracted them to volunteering before. That risks not only turning people of volunteering with your agency but with any orgaisation.

What's in a word? Potentially everything. Let's think really carefully about the words we use and the bandwagons we jump on. They may take us to places we don't want to go.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

We should all remember, remember to sing the praises of volunteer managers

5th November is International Volunteer Managers Day, an annual day that recognises the contribution of volunteer managers around the globe.

I’ll admit it, when I first heard about it I thought “not another international day of something-or-other. Aren’t there enough of those already?” I was challenged to think about it more deeply though when Rob Jackson spoke up in favour of the day and invited me to write this blog post.

The bigger picture

I first turned my thoughts to other “days”. The ones that immediately came to mind were International Women’s Day, Nurses’ Day, and World Aids Day. 
These three seem to sum up what most “days of” are about:
  • shining a light on a marginalised group
  • bringing our attention to a group of people providing an important service
  • or shouting about an important cause that needs its profile raising.

But how can volunteer managers compare with that?

Are volunteer managers a marginalised group? Are we providing a service? Do we need our profile raising? In my opinion, the answer to all three is a resounding yes.

In need of recognition

Last week I met a volunteer manager who had had to fight to have her job graded on the same level as those who managed staff, because she “only” managed volunteers. This is backed up by evidence elsewhere which shows that volunteer managers often aren’t on the same grade as those who manage paid staff. As a result, volunteer managers often miss out on a place at the table for important discussions and decisions. In this sense, we are marginalised.

What about providing a service? As the website of International Volunteer Managers Day says, volunteering can’t survive in a vacuum. Volunteer managers are not the extra bit on the side. We’re essential. We enable volunteering to happen by developing positive volunteer roles, providing day to day support, and ensuring volunteers have a positive experience. In short, we enable volunteers to volunteer. I’d say that’s a pretty good service.

As for profile raising, if you say to many people that you work for a charity they will immediately assume you’re a fundraiser. People just don’t think of supporting volunteers as a role. What’s more, in this age of cuts and austerity, a lot of people unfortunately see volunteering as a cost-cutting exercise and believe it is free. They don’t see the costs involved in supporting volunteers or the value of supporting volunteers well. The profile of volunteer management needs raising.

To me then, it seems that volunteer managers are worthy of their own international day, but what does that really mean? And what can it achieve?

It’s up to us

Few international days produce concrete outcomes, but the successful ones do go hand in hand with improvements in the situation. That only happens because of hard work and action, all year round, and on the international day in particular.

If we are going to capitalise on this opportunity and make International Volunteer Managers Day mean something we have to do something. We may not be going to march to Downing Street to demand change, or run TV adverts shouting about our cause, but if we want the day to achieve something we have to make it happen.

Hold an event, tell your friends, blog about it, but most of all spread the word to volunteer managers, volunteers, other charity workers, and, most importantly, beyond! Not just on IVMDay (it’ll happen again on 5 November 2014), but all year round. Only that way can we raise our profile, reduce marginalisation, and be recognised for the important service we provide.

For my part, today I’ll be tweeting, posting on Facebook, and generally shouting about it to anyone who’ll listen! And I’ll keep going for the next twelve months too.

What about you?

Kirsty McDowell is a consultant, specialist in volunteer involvement and the founder of Fish Quay Consulting. You can read more of Kirsty’s musings at