Volunteers: we’ll call you

July 29, 2013

My friend wanted to “give back to the community.” It’s a common desire among baby boomers wrongly dubbed the selfish generation. But the path to volunteering proved rockier than she anticipated. The long application forms, police checks, and training sessions didn’t deter her. She was used to a bit of bureaucracy. What soured her early volunteering experience was involvement with two successive small charities, in homelessness and child care, that went bust in dubious circumstances. A third agency wanted her to do filing which she considered a waste of her expertise; and with a fourth, there was mutual recognition early in the training that she and the organisation were not a good fit.

My friend persevered and like 6.4 million other Australians has found her niche as a volunteer in a well-run literacy program; after her skills were recognised, she became an evaluator testing the children’s progress. “There seems to be a considerable disconnect between the pool of volunteers and effective organisations that can use them,” she told me.

Pre-retirees who imagine voluntary work will fill a void, provide purpose, and enable them to contribute to society often get a surprise to discover they can’t always get what they want. The world of volunteering is changing. In some ways it has become more like the world of work. It requires commitment, professionalism and accountability. It can come as a shock that for some volunteer jobs you have to get in the queue with your polished CV, and go on a waiting list.

Want to be a volunteer guide at the National Gallery of Victoria? The next recruitment drive is in 2015. Similarly there are no openings at the Art Galley of NSW; Taronga Zoo had four vacancies last week and for one position it would charge the lucky applicant $25. My husband, a former maths teacher with two decades in the finance industry, was surprised the only opening for volunteer maths tutors with The Smith Family, which specialises in education programs, was, at the time he inquired, in Dubbo hundreds of kilometres away.

“In the days of the ‘charity’ anyone who offered any help would have been accepted; now non-government organisations can identify where the need is and unless the volunteers can fulfil the need they don’t want to take them,” Michael Fine, a recently retired professor from Macquarie University, and researcher on volunteers, told me.

Lynne Dalton, CEO of the Centre for Volunteering, was even blunter: “There’s a misconception that everyone’s desperate for volunteers. That isn’t so. People are keen and willing to volunteer. We have to find them opportunities.”

It’s true many people are keen to volunteer. But they’re also picky. Many prefer glamour “event” volunteering – a stint at the Sydney International Piano Competition, the Olympic Games, or the Perth Writers’ Festival – that won’t tie them down or interfere with overseas travel plans. And a lot, it seems, spend minimal hours volunteering; almost half of Australia’s volunteers give less than one hour a week, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Most volunteers prefer to work with trees, animals, or administration, Ms Dalton says. Where the greater need lies is in harder areas such as Meals-on-Wheels, or home visits to the elderly. On the Seek Volunteer website, there are dozens of vacancies for such roles.

Yet when volunteers like my friend do find their niche, the benefits are enormous – and not only to the client. New research shows doing voluntary work is good for you. It improves your sense of well-being: quality of life, satisfaction with life, and depression rates. When Professor James Nazroo presented his findings at a recent conference held by the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research at the University of NSW, he said it was not just that happier, healthier people tended to be volunteers. His study tracked 3,500 retirees in the UK over four years; some were volunteers and some weren’t. He was able to show it was the volunteering that made the difference in people’s improved well-being over time, even after controlling for factors such as social status. And the more volunteering you did, the better you felt about life. Those who volunteered more than once a month, and over the entire four year period, and who felt appreciated in their voluntary work, had the highest well-being of all.

“Volunteering provides a social role that gives meaning and purpose in life,” Professor Nazroo said. “And this might be particularly important for older people post paid employment.”  Volunteering is so good for everyone that people not currently involved should be helped to do so, he believes, particularly because non-volunteers are more likely to live in poorer areas. And that’s where the need is greatest.

But as the big charities become more like corporations, there are signs of dissatisfaction among volunteers. Volunteering is not always so fulfilling. Professor Fine, himself a volunteer in his folk music club, has done research that shows volunteers want “light touch” supervision, want to be consulted, resent top-down management and will walk away from voluntary work if it becomes too stressful or too much like a job.

Lynne Dalton says the NGO sector wants volunteers to be more professional so clients get a good, reliable service. But she takes particular issue with some middle-managers in their 30s who treat mature-age volunteers like idiots.  “Voluntary agencies aren’t there to babysit people who are looking to fill in their day,” she said. “If you don’t have the skills, reliability and dedication to be a volunteer, go play golf. But if organisations want professionalism, they have to treat volunteers like professionals, not dirt.”

What’s your experience of volunteering? Please click on ‘Comment.’

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