Volunteers: the nation depends on you

Geoff Robertson, Vice President, Friends of Grasslands

(Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation, Vol. 15, No. 3, December 2006 - February 2007, pages 30-32)

Introduction and key themes

A central question in conservation, and society more generally, is how to encourage greater participation in caring for society and country? This paper suggests a number of propositions that might help us address this question. First, a healthy society produces volunteers. Second, it is helpful to regard volunteering as unpaid work. Third, non-profit organisations (NPOs), which are usually run by volunteers, provide the bulk of volunteer employment. Fourth, NPOs need to be well organised and directed to be effective users of volunteer labour. Fifth, as employers, NPOs should clearly identify their employment needs. Sixth, volunteers should clearly consider what they are offering and seeking.

Who are volunteers?

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2002), 34% of persons aged 18 and over undertake some form of voluntary work in a twelve months period. Voluntary work should not be confused with caring for sick relatives or child care which many Australians also undertake on an unpaid basis.

Not unexpectedly, most volunteering takes place in activities such as sport/hobby and recreational (12.1%), welfare/community (11.2), education/training/ development (8.0), and religious (7.7). Only 2.1% reported environment/animal welfare activity. Other low scorers were health (2.3), emergency services (1.8), business/profession/union (2.1), arts/culture (2.3), and other (3.2).

Around 2% of males and females of all ages, from all geographic areas, and all income groups, and people with a disability, participate as volunteers in the environment/ animal welfare category. However, participation is slightly higher for women, for rural areas (followed by inner region, with metropolitan last), in higher income groups (3% of highest income category), and the age group 45-54 (2.6%).

This is useful background when considering volunteering in the wider social context. Volunteering is one form of personal/social behaviour, as is employment, managing household resources, or caring, and all may contribute to such things as social cohesion, family and social support and people’s ability to cope or care for our environment. It occurs to me that national leaders should recognise the importance of volunteering as an indicator of a healthy society, and place stress on social and environmental involvement – they should lead by example. Honours should not be given in recognition for paid endeavours unless the recipient has also made a recognised contribution to the community.

A volunteer as an unpaid employee

In my view, we also need to sharpen our concept of volunteer. As a starting point, I think it is useful to simply define a volunteer as someone who works without remuneration or as an unpaid worker. ‘Work’ is a socially recognisable task (not simply defined by the volunteer) and worthy of remuneration. ‘Work’ may include unskilled and highly skilled tasks; and volunteers (especially those on boards of NPOs) may also be employers.

If voluntary work is unpaid employment, it follows that a person undertaking voluntary work is seeking rewards similar to those sought by someone seeking paid employment. Apart from the obvious exception of remuneration (in cash and kind), rewards include: conditions of work, using and developing skills and learning, making a worthwhile contribution, liking the boss, being the boss, being appreciated, career development, keeping the brain active, suitable hours and fitting in with family, social event/interaction, opportunity to travel, and working for an entity one respects.

NPOs as employers of volunteers

NPOs are the main employers of volunteers, and any discussion of volunteers needs to address how NPOs operate, and their effectiveness. An NPO is normally an unincorporated non-profit or not-for-profit organisation which is defined by law and its constitution. To understand an NPO, it is necessary to study its values and objectives, ethical standards, how and what services it provides to members, its stakeholders (who it influences/is influenced by), its members, its people (board of directors, CEO, staff and volunteers), and its resources.

A key issue is governance, i.e. how the organisation governs itself. This includes issues such as strategic planning and monitoring, quality of service delivery, and adherence to values, objectives and ethics.

An NPO offers a range of direct and indirect services to members. The former may include communication and information flow, advice, technical assistance and skills development. Indirect services are those not supplied to members, but which members consider a public good, such as marketing the products of the NPO, public education, targeting stakeholders and advocacy, on-ground work and research, and building infrastructure and networks.

To evaluate NPO effectiveness, one might ask a series of questions such as: Does the NPO have clearly stated values and objectives and adhere to them? Is it known and respected in the community? Are services comprehensive and of high quality? Do staff and volunteers have clearly defined roles and duties and are they enthusiastic? Is there a clearly articulated and effective strategic and work plan? Are the financial and human resources appropriately managed, and a risk management plan in place? Do board members understand the NPO and their role, turn up on time to meetings, prepare for and contribute effectively at meetings, and respect and support one another?

Recruiting, inducting and keeping volunteers

It follows that an effective organisation will have a strategy to recruit, train and keep volunteers. Like any good employer, it should: seek to fill gaps in its organisation, package the job to suit each individual’s range of skills, have induction procedures that bring the volunteer up to speed quickly, negotiate clearly defined duties and responsibilities, have a job plan and timetable and seek advice from and provide direction to the volunteer. The organisation should also provide for career development (as appropriate) which can involve encouraging volunteers to move up and on, monitoring performance and providing rewards and recognition, and encouraging the volunteer to develop a self-development plan that addresses personal knowledge gaps and allows the volunteers to prepare for higher management.

A code of practice for volunteers

Too often neither the NPO nor the volunteer think about what it means to be a volunteer. This leads to undervaluing the work of volunteers and under-use of volunteer resources. It can be useful for organisations to develop volunteer codes of practice, manuals and procedures. As a volunteer, I consider that the following propositions need to be affirmed in codes of practice:

Some concluding remarks

Because of my experience in various NPOs and in various employment opportunities, my professional training and reading, and most importantly through the input of many others, I have reflected deeply on what it means to be a volunteer. I would like to offer some personal conclusions:

Further reading and resources

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2002). General Social Survey Summary Results, Australia 2002. [Reference no. 4159.0.Available at ABS website, http://www.abs.gov.au]

Fishel, D. (2003). The Book of the Board, Effective Governance for Nonprofit Organisations. The Federation Press, Annandale.

McGregor, M., James, S., Gerrand, J. and Carter, D. (1982). For Love not Money. A Handbook for Volunteers. Dove Communications, Blackburn. Noble, J., Rogers, L. and Fryar, A. (2003). Volunteer Management – An Essential Guide. 2nd edn. Volunteering SA.

Volunteering Australia. This organisation publishes a wide variety of training resources and materials (such as various national standards for involving volunteers in not-for-profit organisations), and also the journal Australian Journal on Volunteering. See extensive website (www.volunteeringaustralia. org), which includes contact details for the numerous Volunteer Resource Centres around Australia. See also state-based organisations: Volunteering NSW (http://www.volunteering.com.au), Volunteering Queensland (http:// www.volunteeringqueensland.org.au), Volunteering SA (http://www. volunteeringsa.org.au), Volunteering Tasmania (http://www.voltasinc. com), Volunteering Victoria (http://www.volunteeringvictoria.com.au) and Volunteering Western Australia (http;//www.volunteeringwa.org.au).