Happy Volunteers' Week

With Volunteers Week under way in the UK, our columnist reflects on the energising and inspirational work carried out by counterparts in Australia

I’ve just returned from a business trip to Australia where I had the pleasure of celebrating their National Volunteers’ Week at the start of May. I met many people doing amazing work against a background of looming funding cuts, cuts our colleagues ‘down under’ have so far avoided. Yet despite fears for the future many of those I met are innovating and inspiring with their efforts to engage people in volunteering.

My favourite example was an environmental organisation in Western Australia which engages grey nomads (baby boomers who retire and wander the country in an RV, following their noses and the good weather) to tackle an invasive weed species. Many of the older grey nomads and becoming less physically able to handle the hard manual work of removing the weeds from the countryside. Yet these same people remain committed to the cause and want to help.

The solution? Perhaps the best example of microvolunteering I’ve ever come across.

On their travels those volunteers no longer able to do the removal of weeds now use their smartphones to take photographs of the weeds wherever they spot them. These photos are geotagged with the location they were taken and submitted to the environment organisation they volunteer for. That organisation can then use these photos and associated geographical data to map the weed species spread across this huge state (twelve times the size of the UK) and dispatch teams of younger volunteers to fight the spread.

I love this approach for a few reasons:

  • It utilises technology in a meaningful way. Too often technology and microvolunteering is championed because of a flawed assumption that if people don’t have time to volunteer (actually the easiest excuse rather than a genuine reason) then some kind of tech solution is automatically the answer
  • It allows those no longer able to continue with their original volunteer role to switch to a new one and still make a valuable contribution to the cause
  • It is flexible enough for the grey nomads to incorporate into their busy lives, in fact the whole premise of the role assumes flexibility as it relies upon the wandering nature of the volunteers
  • It is a creative solution, generating a new way for volunteers to engage rather than simply looking at how an existing role can be reconfigured to fit a shorter term commitment or changing volunteer motivations and availability

Wherever I travel in the world I see similar issues affecting the world of volunteer leadership and management. However, I don’t always see the same responses to those issues and, returning from this latest trip to Australia, I feel energised and inspired by the way some are tackling the changing world around them.

I hope in this UK Volunteers’ Week we’ll see similarly inspiring home-grown initiatives that challenge us to think afresh about volunteering and its contribution to our organisations and wider society.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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