Rob Jackson: Is our definition of volunteering out of date?

Volunteering Australia is reviewing its definition, but should the UK do the same, asks the volunteering consultant

A couple of weeks ago, Volunteering Australia announced its decision to review its definition of volunteering. The chief executive of Volunteering Tasmania, Adrienne Picone, wrote a helpful blog outlining the issues involved – it is well worth a read.

I wonder if the time is right for us to go through a similar exercise here in the UK, and revisit what exactly we mean by the word volunteering?

Since the global financial crisis in 2008 we’ve seen more high-profile debate about the nature of volunteering. This has focused on a number of issues, including:

  • Whether volunteers are displacing employees from their roles in order that organisations can save money
  • Whether volunteering should take place in the private sector
  • Where the dividing line falls between volunteering and unpaid community work, for example in the Department of Work and Pensions’ welfare to work programmes
  • The nature of compulsion, and whether people forced to give their time (for example, in exchange for state benefits) are volunteers or ‘voluntolds’

None of this is new. Years ago the then National Association of Volunteer Bureaux had a clear line that giving unpaid time to any profit-making activity (including fundraising and charity retail) was not volunteering. Today, that seems patently absurd. The debates have evolved, volunteering has evolved, and we would now embrace volunteering in such settings.

Even the previously untouchable issue of volunteers in the private sector has moved on. Nobody blinked an eye at 70,000 people working unpaid for the profit-making body Locog that organised the London 2012 Olympic and Paralypmic Games. NCVO now has a project looking at volunteering in care homes, where many more private sector operators are engaging volunteer support.

I believe we now need to have a proper debate about whether the definitions we use for volunteering are fit for purpose in the 21st century United Kingdom. Here are just two questions (amongst many others) I think need attention:

  1. How can (or should) we address the question of free will? How do we draw a distinction, for example, between the young person, who must do some volunteering because it will help them get a place at university or a paid job, and the guide leader who has to volunteer because of the peer pressure from children and friends, or the offender who must give time as part of their court sentence?
  2. Should our definitions continue to be written from the perspective of the organisations involved in volunteering (Volunteer Involving Organisations, infrastructure, government etc.), or should we look more at how individuals who give time define themselves as volunteers?

I would love to hear your thoughts. Perhaps the UK Volunteering Forum has a role to play in setting the terms and leading the discussion? However done, we need to follow the lead of our Australian colleagues and ensure we are clear about what we understand the V word to mean in our rapidly changing world.

I leave the last word to the late volunteering co-ordinator and writer Ivan Scheier who, for me, came up with my favourite definition of volunteering, not least because it is one of the very few written from the perspective of the volunteer:

"Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, in a cause you consider good."

This article was first published on the Third Sector blog

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