Rob Jackson’s thoughts on the National Review of the Definition of Volunteering

Rob Jackson, international consultant, trainer and speaker on strategic volunteer engagement shares his thoughts on reviewing the definition of volunteering,

I commend Volunteering Australia for holding this consultation on the Australian definition of volunteering. In our ever changing world where nothing stands still for very long, to still be using a definition that is almost 20 years old is quite amazing.

Much has changed in just the last few years and the time is right to take a fresh look at an issue often viewed as obscure, irrelevant to all but the most conceptually minded people and more philosophical than practical. I couldn’t disagree with such views more: there is nothing as practical as a good theory!

In determining a new definition of volunteering I think a fundamental question needs to be asked: What do we want this definition to do for us? What is it’s purpose? Who will benefit from it? OK, that’s three questions but you get my point.

For example, if we want to come up with a standard way of measuring volunteering across multiple organisations then we develop a nice, easy definition that constrains volunteering within measurable bounds. The International Labor Organisation has sought to do this with its’ efforts to standardise the financial measurement of volunteering around the globe.

Unfortunately, in such an approach we reduce volunteering to less than it’s whole. Problems subsequently arise. If we see volunteering in such small terms we miss out on the richness of the larger scope and diversity of voluntary activity.

Much of the debate in the excellent issues paper which accompanies Volunteering Australia’s current consultation focuses on the advantages to the establishment of a new definition. By that I mean that many views are put forward about how bodies such as government, Volunteer Resource Centres, State peak bodies, Volunteer Involving Organisations, Volunteer Managers and others would benefit from a new definition.

Widening the definition of volunteering widens the constituency existing infrastructure bodies can claim, increasing their influence and strengthening their argument for better support.

Widening the definition of volunteering can widen the influence Volunteer Managers have, as noted above, and can position the profession more positively within Australian society.

Do we want the new Australian definition of volunteering to suit the definers (my concept of establishment) or the nation as a whole? The issues paper acknowledges that, “the current definitions does not reflect how significant numbers of Australians give their time, nor is it well aligned to the Australian community’s view of how they ‘volunteer’ ”.

So my question is, should the purpose of new definition be to help Australians see that the way they give time already is in fact volunteering?

I admit I am a fan of this approach. In helping others to see that their time giving is volunteering we raise awareness of the diversity and breadth of volunteering.

If more people see themselves as volunteers more people take an interest in volunteering issues – more people ask their politicians about volunteering, engage in dialogue with others using the v-word and in doing so change our associations with the concept volunteering to fit 21st century society.

The establishment will surely benefit from this although such benefits may take longer to realise as the new definition has to permeate into Australian culture and across society.

So what could such a definition be? I always plumb for the one articulated by the late American volunteerism thinker, writer and leader, Ivan Scheier:

“Volunteering is doing more than you have to, because you want to, in a cause you consider good”.

Ivan’s definition is a masterpiece of brevity, openness and clarity all in one sentence. It does not need a further set of principles to explain (a concept I’ve always found odd, surely a definition should be definitive?) and allows me to define if what I do is volunteering or not. It is not bound by sectoral boundaries. It includes the concept of free will, as the individual defines it. It doesn’t subjugate volunteering as a second class activity after paid work as many others do.

Of course, Ivan’s definition isn’t perfect. No definition will be. But it is elegant in its simplicity.

I commend it to you Australia for your consideration.