Rethinking volunteering

AVM has a regular column in Volunteering England’s Volunteering magazine. If you are a member you can access the magazine at Here’s the article from the latest issue:

If you do any activity that involves doing something
That benefits the environment or someone else.
If you do it unpaid and not just for a close relative.
If you choose to do this activity by choice,
Made freely by you and not because you’ve been told to.
If you do this through a public, private or voluntary organisation,
Or indeed by informal community participation,
Then – which is more – you’ll be a volunteer, my friend.

Apologies to Kipling. In our last article, John Ramsey started by asking, what is volunteering? It is a question that seems to provoke heated debate, anger, passion and amusement across our profession (just have a look at the archived discussions on UKVPMs).

When I first started in volunteer management life was so much simpler. We all knew what a volunteer was and what they weren’t.

Now there is a whole new dictionary’s worth of differing ways in which people can support organisations: internships, work experience, work placements, employer-supported volunteering (ESV), community engagement, community service and voluntary workers to name but a few.

Then of course we have all the Government initiatives that see volunteering as a way of helping people back into employment, or gain citizenship for example.

Whether or not the many ways of supporting a charity can be considered volunteering, they have at least a couple of things in common: the ‘volunteers’ are not generally covered by employment law and they are not paid by the charity or organisation they are supporting.

In organisations it is the responsibility of the Volunteer Manager to manage them and to ensure that they do not become ensnared by the many legal traps out there, (and who is better skilled to do this than a properly funded and supported Volunteer Manager). This being the case, have we moved away from our Volunteer Manager tag and be re-branding ourselves as Unpaid Support Managers?

Or perhaps we need to revisit the definition of volunteering? The first part of Volunteering England’s definition of volunteering says‘…any activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or someone other than, or in addition to, close relatives. From that any of the above could be termed as volunteering.

However, this argument starts to fall down when you look at the second part of the definition ‘Central to this definition is the fact that volunteering must be a choice freely made by each individual.’

I’m sure there are many people that ‘volunteer’ who feel coerced to a greater or lesser extent. Maybe an employee who feels obliged to take part in an ESV activity because it will look good, or just though the guilt subconsciously applied by an organisation.

Personally, I think it’s all a bit of a red herring. I don’t care if they are an intern, a student on work experience or somebody on an ESV scheme. Provided the role is unpaid and provided they have truly chosen to do it, they are a volunteer and I am their Volunteer Manager.



March 2009 article by Sean Cobley – Head Office Volunteers Manager at Breakthrough Breast Cancer and a member of the Association of Volunteer Managers board

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