I started out on this project by writing a series of vignettes: my own experiences of volunteering which have touched me and may therefore move others in the telling. I polished them and set them in an order which made sense, creating a combination of stories to convey shared humanity, and the ephemeral closeness of relations built through volunteering. I think I did a good job, sharing the things that have deeply touched me, and kept me volunteering.
Then just recently I went to a workshop facilitated by Hue, in which trans & gender diverse peer workers reflected on whiteness culture, and the traditions and institutions which uphold whiteness culture and white supremacy, our roles in upholding whiteness culture or in offering alternatives/committing to change. I can’t stop thinking about volunteerism in that context, about the ways in which formal volunteerism and the nonprofit-industrial-complex reinforce whiteness culture… so I started again.
So, who can volunteer? Who has financial capacity and free time, who can search the listings to find the dream roles, applications through online portals – roles which are increasingly complex and formalised like paid work but without the pay?
How is formal volunteerism differently viewed in comparison to the informal familial and community demands on our time, outside our life networks’ mutual aid? When grandparents are caring for children, sick or disabled relatives, coming out of retirement to supplement their pensions by returning to the paid workforce. During a period of record low unemployment and desperate lack of staff in many fields, who is able to volunteer?
There’s a conversation happening in our ‘hallowed institutions’ about the ‘crisis in volunteerism’: referring to declining numbers and changing demographics of people able to volunteer, especially since COVID.
In the first two years of the pandemic, around 1.86 million people left volunteering, according to Volunteering Australia. Last year, 26.7% of the population did formal volunteer work. That’s well down from the pre-COVID level of 36% in 2019.
By crisis, they’re really referring to the fact that Government funding and programs are now almost impossible to deliver (in budget) without the unpaid hours of volunteers.
The nexus of volunteerism is changing: many people used to stick with their religious institutions or sports clubs to volunteer, or a service organisation like Rotary or Lions Clubs. Nowadays there’s an increasing focus on volunteering strategically, to build your resume; rather than out of obligation to your faith, wish to ‘do good’ or trying to add meaningful purpose to your life beyond the grind. This means that lots of people who don’t have qualifications or with no career experience are ‘trying out’ different roles and tasks, often with an eye to their resume; many migrants with assorted career paths and usually high qualifications are volunteering to get a local reference, to build the networks you need to find career opportunities here in lutruwita.
There’s also this catch phrase which irritates me like a prickle in my sock: ‘corporate social responsibility’. This absolute oxymoron is used to refer to ‘wellbeing incentives’ like allowing a corporate workforce to volunteer during paid time. Then, these hours are totalled up and presented in annual reports – as a calculable investment in ‘community trust’, or a philanthropic donation (tax deductible probably).
Volunteers are often stereotyped as generous martyrs, donating their precious time to the ‘needy’ (we know that the systems we live in manufacture need: being in need is not a character trait).
Volunteering can be boring as hell but it can also be extremely rewarding: but let’s acknowledge that some of this reward can be seen as very performative. Photos of volunteers & clients adorn annual reports and websites, there are annual ‘weeks’ and celebrations to recognise how heavily the not for profit/‘for purpose’ sector depends on this kind of labour.
But there is usually minimal training, little supervision and little opportunity for volunteers to reflect on their roles, especially their role as ‘in-kind support’ lubricating the gears of funding cycles, expanding the pitch to government or philanthropic funders.
Thinking about the stereotype of older white volunteers, in the context of volunteer labour being commodified and ingrained into program design and funding applications, it’s possible to see an ouroboros of self-reinforcing white saviourism at the foundations. Over my decades of experience managing volunteers, I’ve heard more than a few stories from white people referring to ‘their refugees’ or ‘their young people’. Depending on the organisation volunteers may be offered or mandated to attend training of some kind: orienting them to the role they are directed to and for the client demographic they are to serve. I’ve never seen this induction include a critique of power, privilege, class and race, or structured self-reflection for the person volunteering to examine their place and their role in terms of these dynamics.
What’s more, volunteers are usually not invited to contribute to program design or organisational strategy. I did see this back in my time with A Notable Environment Group (WA), and of course in many mutual aid projects without any paid staff, but rarely in community services.
What keeps people participating in this unpaid labour? There’s a lot to be said for the joy of giving, learning new skills, meeting new people, having new experiences: but ignoring the lens of privilege means that each side of this interaction can be experienced totally differently.
Volunteering – the gift of your time and your care – is hugely important; but its place at the centre of the not-for-profit industrial complex is warped by cost of living barriers for the individuals volunteering and an institutional unwillingness to let volunteers lead how service responds to community need. This results in shallow grunt work falling to volunteers as the vice of cost savings squeezes the life out of community services…keeping power in the hands of ‘experts’ while leaving volunteers rolling that boulder up the hill, over and over.
Scoutt is a multidisciplinary amateur with many passions. Scoutt has also been a professional musician, community arts centre coordinator, barista, anti-nuclear pilgrim, motel cleaner, marine conservation campaigner, gardener, swimming teacher, humanitarian settlement worker and community health educator, amongst other things.
The threads that tie their work together are a love of community activism and a framework of social and environmental justice.
Scoutt is white, queer and trans; they grew up on Balardung and Whadjuk Nyungar country and have been living in lutruwita for over a decade.