Volunteering and educational settings

Dr Megan Paull, Murdoch University

Volunteering in Australia is alive and well, including in our schools and universities.  How we define some of the activities undertaken by students, however, is an area of vigorous debate – not even the academics who study these activities can find consensus on what is and is not volunteering in education.

It is timely therefore to ask some questions about volunteering in schools and universities, and to highlight some of the points of debate, given that the Volunteering Australia definition of volunteering is under review.

Let me start by saying I have not yet made up my mind on many of these points, and I pose the questions to provoke your thinking rather than to push a particular view.  Let me also say that I do hold the view that an updated definition of volunteering for Volunteering Australia is important, not only to recognise the depth and breadth of volunteer activity in our country , but also to raise awareness of its importance.

I have below offered a series of examples about which I urge you to ask the question – “is this volunteering?”.  When you think about your response I urge you also to think about what the implications are of including or excluding such an activity from a definition.

My first example relates to students who form their own club in their area of interest at university.  They form a committee, elect a president, hold management meetings for their activity and do their activity as a group.  This might relate to the students operating an environmental garden, running a football team, a theatre group, running a breakfast club in a primary school, or running a group formed to reduce isolation and loneliness for international students.  Are all of these volunteering?  What if the purpose is political, or involves activism?

My second example involves students undertaking community activity in an organisation outside their school or university.  They visit the organisation, join in the work of other volunteers, participate alongside these volunteers doing gardening, helping with maintenance and assisting with domestic chores for elderly residents.  Is this volunteering?  What if they are receiving academic credit for their involvement?  What if they were required to undertake this sort of activity in order to obtain their degree or pass their course of study?  What if the activity is referred to as service learning or community participation by the educational institution but volunteering by the host organisation, might it still be volunteering?

A third example relates to health students undertaking activities at the premises of a private health provider to get a first hand view of the “real world” of healthcare.  Separate to “internship or placement” as part of their degree, the students get involved in the activities of the healthcare provider in social support roles.  Does it matter that the organisation is a not a nonprofit organisation? Is it important that the service provided by the students would not be provided otherwise? Is their contribution volunteering?

Another example relates to primary school students, taken by their teacher on a parent permitted excursion to a retirement village, where they mix with residents, perform a song, and generally provide companionship and good cheer.  Is this volunteering?  Or is it community participation?  Did they have a choice? Maybe.  Was the activity of benefit to the community? Probably. Were they learning about volunteering?  Maybe. Does it matter what we call these activities?  If we don’t call them volunteering what do we call them?  Should we be introducing the concept of volunteering to young students?

There are many more questions on what is and is not volunteering.  If you are interested in reading more about the debate visit the issues paper.