Volunteering – values and visibility

Melanie Oppenheimer, University of Western Sydney

Joy Noble and Fiona Johnston (eds.) Volunteering Visions Sydney: The Federation Press, 2001 (180pp). ISBN 1-86287-404-2 (paperback) RRP $30.00.

This book of 29 interviews provides a snapshot of what policy makers, community leaders and administrators think about the state of volunteering in Australia in 2001, the United Nations International Year of the Volunteer. The contributors are a combination of well- known identities (for example Sandy Hollway and Ian Kiernan) and others predominantly from South Australia. This is due, I guess, to the fact that the editors, Joy Noble and Fiona Johnston, hail from that state. This is entirely appropriate as South Australia continues to be at the forefront of debates and initiatives surrounding volunteering issues generally. Importantly though, the contributors come from a broad range of areas reflecting the voluntary sector and volunteers today.

The book is divided up into eleven sections replicating areas where volunteers are found including human rights, human services, emergency services, the environment, sport, education, the arts, and religion. The final section of the book includes multicultural life, government, creative partnerships, and a chapter by the editors on volunteering perspectives and possibilities. A surprising omission is an interview with someone involved with volunteering internationally. I say surprising because this is an important part of the Australian volunteering experience and an area where younger Australians are found.

Most of the interviews reflect the standard debates currently underway (especially from a bureaucratic perspective which are largely congratulatory in style and content) but there are some ‘gems’ hidden away. For example, John Murphy’s insightful interview buried towards the rear of the book includes a genuine critique of partnerships between government, business, and the voluntary sector. The pursuit of partnerships which is currently seen as one way forward is flawed, argues Murphy, largely because of the lack of compatibility between the core values of the business sector and community sector. ‘For example, at the foundation of business development is an individualistic and competitive philosophy’ which is at odds with ‘the foundation of community development’ which ‘is a collective and co-operative philosophy’. (p. 124).

There are a number of themes raised by contributors in the book. Firstly, there is the problem of legal coverage for volunteer workers, questions of insurance, and the increasing fear of litigation faced by volunteers. It appears that the fear of litigation and inadequate coverage from Occupational Health and Safety legislation is making it almost impossible for some local community based organizations such as Apex, Lions and Rotary to carry out their traditional community work with much of it being relayed to local councils. (See Kevin Howard’s interview on service clubs, pp. 139-142). It is partly in response to this problem that the South Australian government recently introduced the Volunteers Protection Act, 2001. This bill is the first of its kind in Australia, modelled on United States Federal legislation. The question of adequate legal protection for volunteers and the current lack of recognition of volunteer workers within industrial relations legislation such as Occupational Health and Safety (see Sha Cordingly, Executive Officer of Volunteering Australia, pp. 143-150), will, I believe, soon become a prominent issue. The treatment of volunteer workers as second class citizens within the world of work must be addressed sooner rather than later.

Another theme which is integral to the future of volunteering in Australia, and is mentioned regularly in the book, is the significance of attracting young people to volunteering. In all areas, especially sport, the environment and social welfare, young Australians volunteer their time but there is concern about implementing strategies that will further encourage more young people to volunteer. In the latest ABS statistics on voluntary work published in June 2001, 27% of 18-24 year olds volunteered. People under 18 were not included in the statistics.

The treatment of volunteers as second class citizens in the world of work must be addressed.

Contributors in the book focus on schemes to introduce young people to volunteer through primary and secondary schools. This is already happening in some states and regions but I was reminded that this is not new. In the early and mid-twentieth century, the Junior Red Cross was enormously successful in harnessing the youth of Australia in this area. The Junior Red Cross, in New South Wales at least, established a citizenship program with the blessing of the Department of Education from the early 1920s, and Junior Red Cross activities became an integral part of the school day. Many thousands of school children, both boys and girls, were members of the Junior Red Cross, learning about citizenship, volunteering, and interacting with children overseas. Those generations today are the backbone of volunteering so perhaps there is some merit in connecting the school curriculum with broader themes of civics, citizenship, community, and volunteering.

The issue of funding and competitive tendering processes which are new hallmarks of the relationship between governments and the community sector (and part of the new partnerships rhetoric between governments, the community sector, business, and individuals) is raised continually through the book. One of the trends is the increase of ‘corporate volunteering’ where private companies allow their staff to volunteer some time for a particular community based non-profit organization. This idea, once again, is not new, and was carried out extensively during the Second World War where industries such as banks ‘loaned’ out their clerical staff to non-profit organizations such as the Red Cross (and indeed to the armed services) for specific urgent tasks relating to the war effort.

There are, therefore, vital lessons to be learnt from the past. One overriding question which impacts on volunteering today, is why has volunteering been ignored for so long? Why do we not appear to have remembered the amount of volunteering that was undertaken in local communities throughout the twentieth century? Why is it not a feature in our history books? It is not for want of trying. Volunteer activists such as Joy Noble (one of the editors of this book) have been at the forefront of the sector for the past two decades, advocating, organising and writing, yet it is only in the very recent past that volunteers and volunteering have become visible to government and society generally.

I believe that there are two major reasons for the invisibility of volunteering. Firstly, until recently volunteering was perceived as something that older, middle class women did (of course this is not, and never has been, true but it is a difficult stereotype to dislodge). As a result, academics, social commentators, and journalists, especially those educated from the 1970s, have not been particularly interested in volunteering. Secondly, it has not been in the government’s interest to do otherwise, until now. Since the 1990s, and especially since the election of the Howard government in 1996, there have been radical changes in government policy, particularly in the area of social welfare, and volunteers have now become a central plank of policy.

Warning bells are sounding on philosophies of individualism & competitiveness

Volunteering is, therefore, becoming more recognised and visible. That is a good thing. But this recognition comes at a price. On the one hand, volunteering is relishing (deservedly so) newfound publicity and visibility due in no small part to the Olympic experience and the International Year of the Volunteer. But on the other hand, warning bells are sounding regarding current philosophies of individualism and competitiveness which have impacted (largely negatively) on volunteer organizations and volunteers (this is especially the case in areas such as Mutual Obligation).

The sector must, therefore, be constantly wary and vigilant. Despite all the rhetoric and hype of the Sydney Olympics where volunteers played such a valuable and high profile role, and more recently with the many International Year of the Volunteer events, there are guarded warnings, as evidenced by Noble and Cordingly, that ‘the inducements of volunteers is not free’ (p. 157). Why does volunteering continue to be excluded from Australian Bureau of Statistics labour market analysis data and relegated to its own supplementary reports? Why was it considered appropriate in the latest census (August 2001) to find out how many people used computers but not how many people carried out voluntary work?

Volunteering will continue to be problematic until there is a whole-of-government approach where appropriate representation through its own portfolio and department is arranged. As Cordingly points out, ‘volunteering is so diverse it spans 16 government porfolios’ (p. 143). The South Australian model of a Minister for Volunteers and volunteer protection legislation is as good as any we currently have in Australia, where volunteering is not relegated to a social welfare department.

This book, Volunteering Visions, is a useful addition to the growing body of literature on aspects of volunteering in Australia today, and for those outside the field provides a basic introduction to issues currently dominating the sector. Whether it is as ‘visionary’ as the title implies is less clear. It is with the editors that the true ‘vision’ of this book resides. Their chapter, strangely tucked away at the end of the collection, provides the reader with the most concise appeal for the future of volunteering.

Dr Melanie Oppenheimer is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Western Sydney. Her books include ‘Red Cross VA’ (Ohio Productions, 1999) and the edited book with Jeni Warburton, ‘Volunteers and Volunteering’ (The Federation Press, 2000).