This month sees the celebration of UK Volunteers’ Week (1-7 June), a week to recognise the contribution volunteers make to our society. We get seven days, just 2 per cent of the year, to honour those who – as Ivan Scheier put it – do more than they have to, because they want to, for a cause they consider good.
Sadly, despite much hoopla and many a warm word of praise, when Volunteers’ Week ends, things will be different for the remaining 98 per cent of the year. Volunteers will be treated as an afterthought. Budget allocations to cover their expenses will be cut. Volunteers will be accused of trying to take people’s jobs. Resources to lead and manage their work will be squeezed. The warm words will be replaced with negative assumptions about their trustworthiness and competence.
As long as people take volunteers for granted, I fear this will continue. We will hear talk about how volunteers are free or save us money; that we "use" volunteers; that the number of volunteers we have is more important then the impact they have; that we think of them as only able to do the lowly tasks, using different language to talk about those who do "important" work (eg pro bono, skilled volunteer and so on) – when we hear these things, we should be concerned.
When we hear these things we need to act. Volunteers’ Week is a time when some of those concerns might come into sharper focus, but we must be attuned to them all year round. We must challenge mistaken assumptions, prejudices and misinformation about volunteers and volunteering.
The theme of this year’s International Volunteer Managers Day (5 November) is Be The Voice. As the official announcement put it: "The 2017 theme seeks to recognise that volunteer managers need to be so much more than just accomplished leaders of people – we need to be change agents and advocates for our volunteers and for volunteering. We need to make a difference. We need to agitate. We need to advocate."
"As we look at global trends, politics and priorities, the need for effective volunteer engagement has never been more important – and while it’s important to celebrate our great profession on IVMDay, we also want to encourage all volunteer leaders to find ways to fight for great volunteering environments, advocate for adequate resources and become effective activists for the profession of volunteer leadership."
What a great call to action.
As we celebrate Volunteers’ Week this month, let’s all resolve to be the voice of volunteers and volunteering for the rest of the year too.
Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant