Thursday, 15 October 2015

Volunteering is not a dirty word...

I've been volunteering for most of my life.

I supposed the seeds must have been sown when I was a boy, taking part in various community service activities through groups like the scouts or through the Duke of Edinburgh Award program.

During my university years, I dedicated many of my summers breaks volunteering with a Summer School for high school students from disadvantaged and underprivileged backgrounds. I eventually took leadership roles, and spent some of my later uni years as a director of the program. Every year around September or October, I'd start checking with my friends, "Are you volunteering for Summer School this year?" Most of my social circle would be involved - or maybe it was just that most of those involved became my social circle.

I took on organising roles in theatre groups and university clubs, like the Melbourne University Choral Society. I worked with volunteer committees in managing rehearsal venues, hiring professional musicians to support rehearsals, planning camps, and producing performances in major venues to critical acclaim in mainstream media.

Once I started working full-time, I suddenly had less time for that kind of commitment, but nevertheless I found myself volunteering for the Australian Library and Information Association, working on a number of committees over the years for groups, conferences, and board advisory.

And then I started working as an international volunteer, of which I've already discussed the pros and cons. The difference is that this was full-time volunteering, with a living allowance in lieu of a salary. Effectively, volunteering became my job.

At the heart of all these examples are a number of factors:
- being a change agent and making a contribution
- embracing new experiences and the learning that comes with it
- sharing and developing professional skills with others to achieve outcomes
- creating meaningful connections through collaboration and social interaction

Throughout my life, volunteering has expanded my horizons in so many ways, geographically, professionally, socially, and experientially.

However, it was when I tried to return to a job in Australia that I started to realise the stigma of being a volunteer.

I almost wrote real job just then.

That's how ingrained this issue is in our society. Through time, I noticed a number of attitudes emerge about volunteering:

1. "Good for you. I wish I could just quit my job and volunteer, but I've got a career to worry about." Everybody knows somebody who's spent time teaching English to orphans in India, planting trees in Nepal or digging wells in Ghana. So they assume that all international volunteering must be mostly like that - unpaid, unqualified labour, and whilst arguably noble and worthwhile venture, it's not a real job.

2. "It must have been hard to get anything done, especially with the lack of technology." Development work and First World Professional work just don't exist on the same scale. What represents a simple achievement in my job back in Australia could be a task of seemingly Sisyphean proportions, and so just establishing a basic understanding of a professional concept amongst staff can be a far greater achievement. And without context, employers back home might look at my list of achievements, and not appreciate the challenges overcome to achieve the most fundamentals of outcomes.

3. "Did you have a good holiday? It looked like you were having an amazing time." I feel that this is partially my fault, because most of my social media interaction involved a trip somewhere new and exotic at least once a month. But it doesn't really create a balanced view of the reality of volunteering overseas, and there are aspects that only those closest to me would be aware of.

4. "You don't have current experience." Because my last two years of work doesn't translate directly into the tasks at hand in the job that I'm applying for. Never mind the 12 years of experience before that. Honestly, if you want to recruit somebody who's been doing the same job for the last five years, then I'm not going to be that person. But if you want somebody who has developed the kinds of soft skills that can only come from working across half a dozen industries in four different countries, with a solid professional foundation, then that's me. The reality is that whomever you recruit is going to need to adapt their skills, attitudes, and knowledge for the new workplace, regardless of whether they come from overseas, or just down the road.

Of course, there are a few attitudes that are often left unsaid. The main one is the idea that volunteering isn't real work - because if it were real work, then I would be valued for it and paid accordingly. In Australia, we often have quite strict labour laws that state that volunteers must not perform core duties that would otherwise be performed by a paid professional. In the context of the Australian workplace, I agree with this. To do otherwise would imply that the work isn't worth paying for, and both diminishes the role of the volunteer, and the value of the other professional staff who are effectively being replaced.

It's a completely different matter when the organisation is based in a developing country, and either can't afford to hire professional staff, or there aren't any professional staff located in the region.

A research paper from Australian Volunteers International found that, despite volunteers developing strong are rare skills, "the term ‘volunteer’ itself diminishes the value of their experience in the eyes of prospective employers, leading them to regard the volunteer assignment as irrelevant to paid employment back in Australia." Some returnees avoided using the term "volunteer", instead focusing on the professional work that they did. Others highlighted the recruitment process for the volunteer program - that it was a competitive process, and participants generally needed 3-5 years of professional experience.

Finally, the reality is that our society is full of unpaid workers, who are developing valuable skills, doing work that is important to them and contributes to their immediate and wider communities. Whether they are stay-at-home mothers and fathers, charity volunteers, special interest community groups, parent volunteers at schools, full-time disability carers, community arts organisers, and so on. And then there are teachers, whose paid hours are in no way aligned to the amount of work that they do.

I know that there aren't always the available resources to pay everybody for their work, but that doesn't make it any less professional. Let's recognise people for their hard work and achievements, and stop focusing on how much they make.