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.


  1. Hello Rob,

    It was a surprise to hear about this trend called microvolunteering, because it is the complete opposite of what I do as a Volunteer Coordinator of a ministry. We believe it is a calling to serve in our Christian ministry. We don't want someone to join just to "help out." We want people who believe that they have been drawn to this ministry to serve. And we do require everyone to complete a general orientation including all the board of directors. No one is exempt. I've found that those who are responding to a sermon about helping the needy and are not prayfully considering their decision usually won't last anyway. Our work is about extending help to people in need by mobilizing local churches to transform lives and communities in the Name of Christ. It can be anything from budget mentoring and job career skills, to home furniture and appliances at a discount with in kind work if they can't afford the amount charged, and providing home repair and car repairs.

    So microvolunteering is a completely foreign concept to me and really has no meaning. It would not be something even entertained at our ministry. In addition, in the final analysis what is the benefit of microvolunteering to our society? I really don't understand the purpose. I've always equated volunteerism with service. In the book of Proverbs it says, "Deception tastes sweet to a man, but afterwards his mouth is filled with gravel." You lose the purity of your heart if your motivation is luring people into your organization or in my case ministry under questionable pretenses. Denise

  2. Hi Rob! I've just come across your great blogs via @VolunteerWeek on Twitter. As the Manager of an online brokerage that's about bite-sized ways to help out locally, I spend a lot of my time communicating exactly what you have in your penultimate paragraph of this blog to the organisations I work with i.e. 'microvolunteering' (whatever one thinks of it as a concept) is not just an add on, nor is it about rebranding the traditional approach: it's a different volunteering methodology that will mean changing the way one engages and works with volunteers in any given organisation. I too found the IVR report on microvolunteering very interesting. It would be great to bump into you one day!

  3. Posted on behalf of John Ramsey:

    Language is incredibly important. It enables us to shape our thoughts and ideas, give voice to our emotion and shape identities. Thirty, forty years ago this wasn’t such a problem. Volunteering was a traditional activity carried out by a traditional group of people. But as our understanding and development of volunteering has evolved so the edges have becoming increasingly blurred and we now have a multi-dimensional set of sometimes confusing tensions, for example:

    - Cohorts of people who will ‘give time’ but won’t volunteer because they will never identify themselves as ‘volunteers’; may volunteer if it was ‘sold’ to them in an appropriate way; are proud to volunteer and identify themselves as volunteers

    - Failure to challenge both the use of the word ‘volunteering’ (as Rob identified) and how it fits in the wider policy narrative.

    - The differences between short and long-term gain eg selling volunteering as ‘unpaid internships’ has a short-term gain but does it devalue volunteering in the long-term?

    - Many organisations viewing volunteers as a distinct, separate part of the organisation rather than an integrated part of it.

    - The role of volunteering in the wider participating agenda.

    For me, the starting point is that we have to recognise that volunteering does not operate in isolation. It is part of an individual’s life-cycle, as their leisure, their community engagement and their development. It is part of how society blossoms through different ways of participation such as consultations, attending meetings, activism, holding honorary positions, ‘informal’ and ‘formal’ volunteering etc. It is part of how a government, regardless of hue, wishes to develop their policy agenda.

    A failure to have a firm, collective response to all of this though will result in its isolation and isolation for the sector, for individual organisations and for volunteers.