What’s in a name?

Kylee Bates, World President, International Association for Volunteer Effort (IAVE)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” so spoke Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, suggesting that it was not the name that mattered so much as the essence of the thing. However names, as we know, do matter, as do definitions. The way something is defined can, and does, determine its place in the world – how it’s viewed and how it’s valued.

So, it was with some curiosity that I turned to the Macquarie dictionary for guidance and learned that among the meanings given to the word ‘definition’ is “to explain the nature or essential qualities of…” causing me to ask, what are the essential qualities of ‘volunteering’ in Australia? Do they pertain only to a period that has now passed, or do they transcend time, and possibly place?

IAVE’s mission is to… promote, support and celebrate volunteering in all of the many ways it happens throughout the world and the Universal Declaration on Volunteering adopted in 2001 extols the ideal that All people in the world should have the right to freely offer their time, talent, and energy to others and to their communities through individual and collective action, without expectation of financial reward.

Implicitly, IAVE acknowledges that volunteering throughout the world may take different forms but that the essential qualities highlighted in the Universal Declaration amount to: time offered freely; individual and collective action; and without expectation of financial reward. Elements not dissimilar to those found in Volunteering Australia’s definition of formal volunteering.

Definitions are important because they allow us to name, acknowledge and place a value on the thing that we seek to define. Nearly 20 years since Volunteering Australia documented its definition of formal volunteering it may be timely to review this to take account of the evolved, social, cultural and technological contexts in which volunteering in Australia today occurs, but for my part it is critical that we continue to pay proper regard to its essential qualities.