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Last week events were held across the country to say thank you to the 6 million Australians who volunteer. National Volunteer Week 2017 was staged by Volunteering Australia as “an annual celebration to acknowledge the generous contribution of our nation’s volunteers”. I was intrigued, having been a volunteer for most of my life, as my path and that of Volunteering Australia had never crossed.
Around 40% of Australian adults undertake volunteer work each year. The youngest and oldest contribute disproportionately; single parents and people in positions of responsibility are more likely to volunteer, and almost half of all part-time workers do
The old sweats of my army brat childhood used to say, "Never volunteer." Doing so would put you at the sharp, dirty and exposed end of whatever was going on. As with much of the childhood advice I received, when it came to the crunch, I ignored it. So, over time, I volunteered for national service and in one or two other contexts. I am not currently an active volunteer, which I regret. I miss the sense of making a contribution, of giving something back to the community. Most of all, I miss the self-esteem which goes with that. Perhaps too, like many people, I have an innate sense of guilt which volunteering somehow helps to assuage.
It's a truism that the fiscal contributions that volunteers make can be calculated and that it is significant. It is also true that many cash-strapped organisations use volunteers in lieu of professionals simply because they are cheaper, and that in contexts where this occurs there is tangible resentment as the professionals perceive that the work of volunteers may be exploited by the organisation to maintain a sub-standard professional staff profile.
This is sometimes reflected at the workface in contexts such as bushfire fighting, where sometimes the firefighting staff of the Department of Parks and Wildlife depart the scene at their normal knock-off time regardless of the fire's behaviour because overtime is not available. The volunteer firefighter is left at the firefront musing. This asymmetry is what underlays the long-running and sometimes bitter dispute in Victoria between the volunteers of the Country Fire Authority and the salaried members of the United Firefighters' Union. It sometimes occurs at fires being managed by the professional members of the Tasmanian Fire Service.
Why do we volunteer? People often join an organisation because it meets their needs. That need may be business related, it may be
a need for friendship or a sense of belonging, or the volunteer may be motivated by self-serving ends, including finding employment. Political volunteers often are motivated at this basic level. They get involved with a political campaign because they see the personal benefit to them, often around something financial like taxes. They believe that if they help elect a certain candidate, it is going to benefit their business or their taxable income. Internship is another example of this self-interested type of volunteer. They want experience that they can use to get a job. Most of them are also looking for a mentor – and someone who can write a strong recommendation letter for them.
People also volunteer because of peer pressure. When a friend asks someone to volunteer, it is often hard to say no. If the friend is excited about a certain cause, he or she is the best person to do recruiting. Relational marketing is one of the most effective marketing tools. Investing in relationships is one of the strongest stimulators for our inner motivations.
When people believe in an organisation's cause, even if it will cost them a great deal of personal sacrifice and pain, that is when the volunteer is most strongly motivated. People often join an organisation at level one (self-serving) or because of a friend, but in time they become true believers and passionate about the cause. This should be the goal with each volunteer member of any organisation. Intelligent organisations recruit volunteers at all three levels, and use each kind of motivation to enlist volunteers.
Much depends on the corporate attitude of the parent organisation towards volunteers. The volunteer may be tolerated, welcomed and actively and respectfully engaged with. Or not. If the organisation actively and wholeheartedly welcomes the volunteer, and puts in place the mechanisms to induce this then he or she will stay, often for years. But volunteers do not stay where they do not feel welcome or respected. Organisations with a high turnover rate of volunteers should examine their reasons for recruiting them in the first place, and the mechanisms provided to train them in the skills they are expected to exercise. Ambulance Tasmania and the Tasmanian Fire Service have excellent facilities for training their volunteers, who feel both welcome and respected.
If you are contemplating becoming a volunteer, see if you can find out what the organisation for which you are volunteering your services says and does about its volunteers. If they don't have a policy you can read, go somewhere else.
John Fleming II
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