The language of volunteering – a time for vigilance

An Introduction to Volunteering

Volunteering is work without pay; the branch of philanthropy in which time replaces cheque book. But what type of work? Herein lies much confusion. In the UK, volunteering opportunities range from “defence of the realm” to chauffering tennis superstars to Wimbledon. The word “volunteer” is a victim of the slippery english language, its meaning changing over time at ever-increasing speed as politicians borrow its virtues and as Americans grapple with its unpoetic derivative forms.

The evolving volunteer

The english language volunteer began life as an opportunist soldier in a medieval army, maturing slowly over the centuries into the good citizen we know and love. The linguistic and conceptual legacy can be confusing; the “Voluntary Sector” is increasingly managed by professionals, and many “volunteers” working overseas do receive payment, albeit on local scales, whilst others are required to pay handsomely for the privilege.

Fortunately the global image of volunteering has flourished despite these variations in its interpretation; volunteers are widely attributed with the cohesion of local communities, papering over the cracks in national welfare programmes, and even cementing the success of the Sydney Olympics. There are indeed grounds for optimism that the exciting new field of “online” volunteering has the potential to extend these local successes to the global village.

This road has not always run smooth. The mid-19th century English novelist, Charles Dickens, set back the cause of volunteering in Bleak House with the appalling Mrs.Jellyby, a lady so obsessively devoted to the cause of an African charity that her dysfunctional London household receives the full treatment of Dickensian caricature.

When the central character arrives for a night’s lodging, she finds Mrs Jellyby dictating letters pleading the fate of the natives of the lower Niger, oblivious to the screams of one of her children falling down stairs and another with his head stuck in the railings outside.

Volunteering Hijackers

Today the cause of volunteering is possibly more threatened by success than satire. Governments and institutions cannot resist effective grassroots initiatives; volunteering is being shoved through the analytical mincer of policy; how much does it contribute to GDP? what role can it play in achieving the Millennium Development Goals? Kofi Annan has even said that “volunteerism is the ultimate expression of what the United Nations is all about” – these are conceptual leaps for the humble world of civil society’s volunteer coordinators. With the corporate sector muscling in with “employee volunteering” schemes which test the boundaries of conventional volunteering, the linguistic meaning of the word is once again undergoing a degree of upheaval.

If volunteering is indeed tiptoeing around the borderline between informal and formal sectors of the social economy, the eyes of all concerned should perhaps be kept wide open.

Rising expectation of the outcome of volunteer effort is a small step towards over-enthusiastic recruitment, an echo of the military origins of volunteering and a reminder that any degree of coercion subverts the meaning of the word. It is now the custom for civil society groups to lobby UN summits to include “the language of volunteering” in their formal action plans. The intent is admirable but the outcome may pitchfork an essentially grassroots concept into the thresher of UN phrases endlessly repeated and translated. Volunteering needs vigilance for its preservation!


this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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