Gift of Time

Evelyn O’Loughlin, March 2015

The current discussion about defining volunteering is less about defining a term than describing it.  Definition and description are neither synonymous nor coterminous concepts. “Voluntary” has a common English meaning derived from the Latin “voluntas” meaning will.  A voluntary activity is an act of will/choice; a person acting out of will/choice is a volunteer; it is irrelevant whether these acts of will/choice are discharged in first, second or third sector activities. 

There is also a common English understanding as to the meaning of “voluntary association” as the discharge of that fundamental democratic right of freedom of association. Organisations are formed by people exercising their right of freedom to associate. These organisations operating together in a nexus have been called the “voluntary sector” or “third sector”. This sector is described and defined variously, but despite vagaries it would include organisations that comprise or are constituent parts of that sector’s infrastructure.  Here, it will be referred to as the “third sector”, where government is the first and the private sector is the second.  There is considerable value in using this categorisation against the broader backdrop of the techno-capitalist society in which we live and move.

The present discussion about defining volunteering is perhaps failing to consider the fact that, in real terms, it should be a discussion about the nature of the third sector and its relationship to the other two.  It should also reflect consideration of issues of work-life balance and changing perceptions of paid employment/wage labour.

The boundaries between the sectors are unstable and activities that occur within each are not always discrete or specific to the nature of the sector in which they occur.  There is paid employment in the third sector and voluntary activity in the second, for example.  These need not be seen as incongruous; rather, they reflect a vital diversity and fluidity in thought and behaviour.

The present discussion represents an attempt to establish a ‘term of art’ – a term or definition that has a specialised meaning in our ambit.  While the precise, shared meanings of a ‘term of art’ are important, the larger part of the struggle is to identify the field or sector of this activity which is really what is at issue here.

How do we establish and maintain our sector boundaries in the face of consistent sociological and ideological flux?  This is of critical importance for the volunteering infrastructure, because it has services to provide and resources to deploy. The need to place reasonable and justifiable limits on our constituents requires pragmatic solutions.  It is essential that such solutions be constructed against the broader context of the shifting frontiers of the three sectors.  I think the answer lies in an attempt to determine the essential elements of the activity – volunteering – that we are seeking to describe.

I think we would all agree that at the very least these elements would be free choice and the absence of remuneration.  Free choice is an option to act in a certain way in the absence of any form of compulsion, requirement, inducement or external determination.

The absence of remuneration means that any exchange, in cash or kind, does not qualify as an economically acceptable exchange or compensation for time and/or labour (that is, a wage or salary at appropriate rates).  In reality, we need to move away from defining and describing volunteering in contrast to paid employment.  Given the anthropological concept of reciprocity, the work/life balance discourse and other ideological trends, I am more inclined to favour the view that what paid workers are being compensated for by their wages and salaries, is their time.  And what volunteers also give is, in essence, a gift of time.  Our problem is that gifts of time occur within both first and second sectors, so again the boundaries are unclear.  The usual qualifier is to employ the concept of community benefit, but this has little real value because gifts of time within government and the private sector could be argued to provide benefit to the community at large.

The appropriate determinant would, in my view, simply be where the activity occurs.  A gift of time made in the voluntary or third sector falls within the ambit of the infrastructure of our sector.  And, as outlined in Volunteering Australia’s current definition which has served us so well from so many years, gifts of time that occur within government (first sector) or private (second sector) do not.

The current Volunteering Australia definition shows deep insight and intellectual rigor. We must avoid the temptation of making a new definition of volunteering all things to all people.