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Volunteering in Focus: the Panoramic View

Contributed by Janelle Hatherly, Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Sydney, NSW, Australia


The success of the volunteer programme at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the celebration of the International Year of Volunteers in 2001 have brought volunteering into sharp focus. Volunteering is no longer viewed as the domain of the middle-aged upper classes, engaged in informal charitable acts as some sort of noblesse oblige. Instead, modern volunteering attracts both males and females, of all ages and from all walks of life, who are likely to be in full-time employment and committed to an interest. The changes in volunteering have come about to a large extent through changes to society. This paper examines the reasons for some of these changes and the challenges faced by organisations wishing to build volunteer support groups.

A Volunteering Past

Volunteering has a long history. As far back as the 1800s volunteers from the emerging social classes of Western Europe and North America engaged in charitable activities. Social boundaries were defined by grouping individuals into those who provided assistance and support to those who were needy. The next two hundred years saw a progressive evolution towards more established volunteer programs, providing a social context where volunteers got together to serve a common good. For example, Australia has a long and distinguished history of volunteering organisations. A number of these, such as Rural Fire Service and Surf Lifesaving, are up to one hundred years old and have iconic status. There are also many ‘unsung heroes’ such as the Smith Family (78 years old), Meals on Wheels (established 1957), State Emergency Service (45 years old), and school Parents & Citizens Associations (79 years old). Botanic gardens also have a long association with volunteering. Many regional botanic gardens were founded by volunteers united as ‘Friends of the Garden’; and volunteer guides have been interpreting living collections to visitors for many years. Volunteer guiding began at the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney as far back as 1978.

Traditionally, volunteer groups were perceived to be made up of older retired members of society or the non-working partners in single-income families (that is, females)

Today’s Volunteers

The Sydney Olympic experience in 2000 brought volunteering ‘top of mind’. Volunteers were vital to the Olympic and Paralympic Games; over 62,000 people contributed service in this way. These events, the biggest peacetime projects on Earth, provided a contemporary snapshot of who volunteers are and what is involved in recruiting, training, managing and retaining them. This was followed in 2001 by the International Year of Volunteers, which made society at large even more aware of the extraordinary contribution volunteers make. Volunteering gained formal recognition as a social identity.

On reflection:

  • Today’s volunteers are males and females, aged between 15 and 80 plus, are likely to be in full-time employment and are generally committed to an interest or worthwhile cause.
  • Regarding recruitment, if expectations are aligned with reality, attrition is low.
  • Although volunteers, by definition, are unpaid, they are not free. All costs need to be properly assessed before launching new schemes to use them.
  • Formal volunteer programmes require sound management structures and established policies, guidelines and procedures.
  • Volunteers are entitled to expect and deserve to be given good management, clarity about what they are being asked to do, training and support.
  • Recognition is an extraordinarily powerful motivational force that ensures continuing commitment.

Far from purely ‘doing good’, today’s volunteers are motivated to rally together for a common cause, often for a short duration, for the satisfaction of working with others and to have a sense of contributing to the bigger scheme of things. They also embrace an opportunity for work experience and skills acquisition.
So why have these changes come about? We live in rapidly changing times. Social, cultural, economic and technological changes have led to an erosion of traditional forms of workplace and community. There used to be a clear distinction between work and home; males found their identity as breadwinners and females as nurturers. Nowadays equal numbers of women and men are in the workforce and both share family responsibilities. Adolescence is prolonged and there is an increasing ageing population. People are retiring earlier and for longer. Also, work practices have gone from ‘jobs for life’ to more flexible ‘serial careers’. Learning has become an ongoing pursuit and flexible working arrangements are becoming the norm. It is increasingly difficult to separate work time from learning and leisure time.

As societal groupings are eroded, many more people are living alone or in isolated family units. They look to volunteering as a meaningful way of sharing activities and creating a sense of belonging. The boundaries between play and work are blurring as skilled people look for ways to connect with each other. This may be through their children’s activities, common interests or in support of a worthy cause.

Volunteers of Tomorrow

It seems likely that tomorrow’s volunteers will be of all ages, will be available to contribute at various times of the day and for varying periods of time. They will come from all walks of life, from both the community and the corporate world. They are likely to be highly skilled and will seek meaningful involvement.

So, what does this mean for botanic gardens and the volunteer programmes they currently run and might run in the future? The challenge will be to 'fit the job to the volunteer' rather than ‘the volunteer to the job’. Unless receptive to the changing motivations of volunteers, botanic gardens risk losing dedicated contributors to existing programmes as well as not attracting new ones.

The mission statement of many botanic gardens involves raising community awareness and appreciation of plants and the natural environments. How better to achieve this than by directly involving the community in mutually beneficial activities? Volunteering is an ideal way for botanic gardens to become an accepted voice in the community rather than being perceived as irrelevant institutions separated from people’s daily lives.To stay in step with worldwide societal trends, botanic gardens must encourage community input into organisational decision making and service delivery. This may require swinging existing organisational cultures around from ones that view volunteers as an additional workforce to ones that value volunteers as audience advocates and active citizens. It needs to be understood that volunteers are vital links between the organisation and the community and therefore need to be integrated fully into organisational structures. Only then will paid staff not feel threatened by volunteers 'taking over their jobs' but will appreciate that volunteers create opportunities.
In the end, the winner is a healthy civil society.


NSW Strategic Agenda for International Year of Volunteers 2001
Sandy Hollway’s Speech to Volunteering NSW Dinner to launch IYV 2001
Volunteering in a Social Enterprise, Elaine Henry CEO The Smith Family IYV Forum: Volunteering the Olympic Legacy 2001
ABS Australian Social Trends 1997 Work – Unpaid Work: Voluntary Work
Volunteering Vision 2010 Volunteering SA
Giving Time: Volunteering in the 21st Century, CVS report in association with Demos, June 2000