Naming, shaming not in the spirit of volunteering

Recent publicity about the Volunteer Army Foundation's move to "name and shame" people who did not honour a pledge to do four hours of work in return for a concert ticket prompted Ruth Gardner, of Volunteering Canterbury, to look at how voluntary work is changing.

Volunteers do it for free.

They don't expect a reward, but some young volunteers got tickets to The Concert in exchange for doing four hours' work.

Others who went to The Concert said they'd do the work later, but didn't.

Immediately after the earthquakes, the Student Volunteer Army did a fantastic job mobilising young people to help clear up and to help those who had experienced unprecedented disruption to their homes and lives.

The students, along with the Farmy Army and others, raised the profile of volunteering to extraordinary heights, and we were pleased to work with them on various projects.

Once the initial recovery was over the Student Volunteer Army formalised into the Volunteer Army Foundation and sought ways to maintain the momentum that had been built up.

They decided that a way of attracting and retaining young volunteers was to offer them free tickets to a rock concert in return for four hours of voluntary work.

Volunteering Canterbury (VolCan) had reservations about this concept, which we discussed with them.

A useful benchmark is that if a tangible incentive, such as an honorarium, is offered before the work is taken on, then it's not voluntary. The offer of a concert ticket, valued at $100, seemed to us to be such an incentive.

We were pleased when they agreed to widen the offer to include those who were already volunteering, and we promoted this aspect to our organisational members.

We are aware that there were some not-for-profits who declined to be part of The Concert project because they felt it wasn't truly volunteering, or because the short-term nature of the commitment didn't match their organisation's needs.

When it became obvious that the goal of 10,000 volunteers, each doing four hours' work, would not be reached before The Concert, the foundation introduced the idea of a pre-pledge. This was publicly announced, along with the warning that anyone who reneged would be "named and shamed".

We did not agree with this, and raised our concerns with the foundation at the time.

The idea of offering a tangible incentive to "volunteers" was already stretching the accepted bounds of volunteering. The idea of naming and shaming those who failed to meet their contract took it right outside those bounds. The agreement these pre-pledgers made was a trading of services for reward, not a volunteer contract.

Young people have always freely given voluntary time to sports groups, environmental and other projects.

The widely accepted definition of voluntary work is that it is done of one's own free will, unpaid, for the common good: aroha ki te takata a rohe (love of the people in your own area). But change, which is constant in our city, is also constant in the voluntary world.

In recent years there has been a shift to more professionalism in the management of volunteers, matched by a wider understanding that those who offer to do voluntary work expect to receive some kind of benefit from it.

While many still gain their benefit simply from knowing that they are contributing to the community, others offer their time and services for a variety of reasons.

These include gaining experience or skills, furthering a cause they believe in, making friends, widening their horizons, and having fun.

Experienced volunteer managers are aware of the range of benefits volunteers may seek. Ensuring those desires are met is the essence of retaining and rewarding volunteers.

The other noticeable change is that today many volunteers seek roles that are shorter term. They want to use their skills and expertise to see a task through, then move on to something else. This has been particularly apparent since the earthquakes, when so many lives are uncertain and a long- term voluntary commitment is often too much to ask.

VolCan has continually worked to encourage not-for- profit agencies to offer the shorter term assignments which are the preference of so many volunteers.

Some popular roles are with Gap Filler, Greening the Rubble, or community-based holiday programmes.

VolCan has supported voluntary work in Christchurch and wider Canterbury for the past 25 years.

In that time we've seen a great many changes. When we first started, volunteering was often based on the charity model - doing good TO someone.

It soon moved to a community development model - doing good WITH someone - so that the recipient of the services was the person who made the decision about what was needed.

Many wonderful volunteers have made an incredible difference in all kinds of areas, often over a period of years or even decades.

VolCan is now working with city-wide groups to encourage community engagement at a local level. We are aware that many people hesitate to travel far, and that assisting in your own neighbourhood builds community resilience.

Our Employer Supported Volunteering Programme is another avenue for community organisations to access skilled help.

There has been much discussion of the pros and cons of the pre-pledge issue.

We welcome ongoing discussion of the definition of volunteering. As society changes, the definition may also change.

Whatever happens, VolCan will be here, supporting, promoting, and upholding the integrity of voluntary work.

Ruth Gardner is manager of Volunteering Canterbury.

The Press