Rob Jackson: Watch your language

The notion of 'skilled volunteering' is problematic, writes our columnist

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

In 2013 I wrote a post on my Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd blog called What’s in a word?, looking at the language we use about volunteering.

Three years ago I looked at language in relation to microvolunteering and internships. Now I want to address a relatively new term that has crept into the vocabulary of the sector: "skilled volunteering", which refers to people using their professional skills to help a good cause. It is in effect what many people have usually referred to as pro bono:

Professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service. Unlike traditional volunteerism, it is service that uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them

Wikipedia

I’ve always had an issue with using language that omits the word volunteer to describe volunteering that requires particular skills or competence. Why draw a distinction between employees using their professional skills pro bono and someone who might be a retired professional from the same field using exactly the same skills who is seen only as a volunteer?

On the face of it then "skilled volunteering" is not a bad term because at it least recognises that the people who use their considerable skills and expertise to further good causes are indeed volunteers.

Yet for all that this is a step forward, I think the term "skilled volunteering" is seriously flawed.

First, it emphasises the work-related (professional) skills of employee volunteers above all others. Yet not everyone wants to use their work skills in their volunteering. Some accountants are happy to be treasurers, but others might want to volunteer equally valuable skills not associated with their careers. Consider this: if an accountant has a leisure time talent for web design and donates that voluntarily to a good cause, isn't that person just as much a "skilled volunteer" as they would be if they used their financial talents?

Second, as it becomes more common to refer to employee volunteers using professional skills as skilled volunteers, so we increasingly imply that all other volunteers (fundraisers, mentors, befrienders, drivers and so on) are unskilled: nice-to-have, non-essential contributors who don’t do anything of real value in the organisation. It is bad enough that so many people already hold this erroneous and misleading view of volunteers without introducing terminology that perpetuates such incorrect beliefs. All volunteering requires some skill and competence; all volunteering is "skilled volunteering" in some way.

Language is important. Let’s not use it carelessly and devalue volunteering, but with thought and clarity to shine a light on the contribution of all those who give their time to good causes, using whatever their skills might be to improve themselves, the lives of others and the society we live in.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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