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What on earth is happening to volunteering?

Currently working with the United Nations on the State of the World Volunteerism Report, Dr Debbie Haski-Leventhal shares her thoughts on recent trends in volunteering.

Why is volunteering changing?

The rapid changes characterising life in the 21st century (globalisation, digitalisation and modernisation) have had an impact on the way we volunteer. The traditional ways of voluntarily working for the same organisation every week for years are slowly being replaced by new and innovative ways of volunteering. These recent trends create new paths in volunteering and allow people who do not have the time or willingness to commit to the traditional on-going style of giving to become involved in the community.

Volunteering, cyberspace and social media

A growing trend is e-volunteering (also known as online or virtual volunteering) which allows people to volunteer from their home or office via the internet. People can provide services online or do work that can be sent to an organisation without their physical presence.

Several Australian organisations have grasped how to utilise this resource and offer online emotional support through trained volunteers who help in their own time from their own choice of location. Not enough Australian volunteer organisations leverage their online presence, particularly social media such as Facebook, Twitter and blogging, to recruit volunteers and offer their services.

The challenge of e-volunteering is to offer support and provide a sense of affiliation amongst online volunteers, while also setting boundaries to avoid unwanted situations.

Corporate volunteering

Corporate volunteering is one of the fastest-growing areas of voluntary activity in the western world. It is considered a win-win-win for the three main players: the company/corporation, employees and the not-for-profit (NFP) organisation. Companies get to enhance their corporate social responsibility and their branding; employees get paid leave to do something meaningful and rewarding, which enhances their job satisfaction and organisational commitment; and NFPs receive human resources and sometime financial aid as well.

However, there are several challenges in relation to corporate volunteering that need to be addressed. Many NFPs find it difficult to provide suitable volunteering roles, and while they want committed volunteers to help with their core mission and a greater focus on skills-based volunteering, the overwhelming majority of corporate volunteers become involved in activities that utilise general skills rather than professional expertise. Hidden costs of hosting corporate volunteers and inadequate communication can also be challenging.

From the employees’ perspective, there is sometimes a feeling of too much pressure on them to volunteer or that volunteer prospects are not very fulfilling.

Corporate volunteering can be a wonderful opportunity for all three parties, if challenges are adequately addressed.

Episodic volunteering

As people struggle to balance life’s demands, often not enough time is left for volunteering. Episodic volunteering offers an opportunity to volunteer in a quick and uncommitted manner. This trend is very popular with Gen Y and volunteer-involving organisations would be wise to offer episodic volunteering opportunities, even on top of their traditional ones.

When I was in the United States I visited Philadelphia’s Ronald McDonald House and saw how this organisation created episodic volunteering opportunities, such as their guest-chef program, in addition to ongoing tasks for the much-needed regular volunteers. This way the organisation can host hundreds of volunteers each year, and some stay to volunteer while others decide to donate money.

International volunteering

International volunteering or ‘voluntourism’ happens when people volunteer outside their own country, either as a combined trip (travelling and volunteering together) or exclusively for the purpose of helping others. It is usually targeted at developing countries (but not always) and mainly attracts young adults. While international volunteering can be expensive and is not affordable for everyone, this new trend is popular and attractive. International organisations can make the most of this trend by offering opportunities to volunteer overseas.

An interesting possibility would be to combine volunteering in Australia with an overseas module or term within it. Further, many volunteers from all over the world would like to volunteer in Australia and some local organisations could utilise this resource.

Family volunteering

Some people volunteer with other members of their immediate family, combining volunteering with family activity and conveying positive community values while working together for a mutual cause.

While family volunteering opportunities are still rare, this growing trend could be an effective tool to further introduce and raise new generations of volunteers as it is found to have had the strongest long-term impact on children’s willingness to volunteer in the future.

Bottom line

While each of these trends can be challenging to organisations, it would be helpful to reflect on them and provide new opportunities within your organisation, especially when striving to attract new generations of volunteers.

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