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The Training Page of Volunteer Today has practical trainer techniques and activities to make orientation sessions more productive and valuable. There are also ideas to help enhance the professional volunteer manager's training level.

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Editor’s Note: The following article is a summary of a journal article on the changing nature of volunteering, written for practitioners. It is “training” for those in the business of managing and administering volunteer programs.

Has Volunteering Changed?

A recent article by Hustinx and Lammertyn in Voluntas International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations tackled the issue of the changing face of volunteering, especially in developed and largely Western countries. The authors, professors of sociology from Belgium, propose that the nature of volunteering, in the formal sense, is changing. It has grown more individualistic, self-organized, secularized, sporadic, temporary, and non-committed. Volunteers are driven less by service than personal interest. The authors set out to review all the literature on this seeming sea change in the nature of volunteering to determine if others shared their observations.

Group Image“Collective” volunteering, the “old” or “traditional” form of volunteering involves service given where a group/organization has initiated, stipulated, and supervised the volunteers. It is often strongly related to community, with class (and perhaps race) homogeneity, low turnover among volunteers, and with shared needs among them. It is also strongly connected to affirmation of group identity, with communal values, many times with a religious orientation.

This form of collective volunteering provides for “long-term, unconditional, and regular volunteer commitment.” There is a strong propensity to strive for the common good. Activities relate to the values of the group, are usually supervised by others and quite often multi-purposed. A Boy Scout leader is not just teaching knot tying. He is also building character; teaching about teamwork, building new stewards for land and water, and the list goes on.

The new volunteer, "reflexive," is focused more on the individual, where personal, not group considerations, are important in Individual Imagedetermining the context of the volunteer activity. There are plural motives for volunteering and high attention to the time given. Time given is the most radical of the changes with irregular and incidental volunteer commitments. The reflexive volunteer (often referreed to in practitioner literature as episodic) wants flexibility and mobility in assignments, preferring to work on an ad hoc or project basis. Some volunteers use their involvement to address personal problems, which is exemplified by the dramatic rise in the formation of “self-help” groups.

The traditional nonprofit and voluntary organization, which supports the collective volunteer, is highly structured and often driven by members, or a social or political ideology. This type of organization developed along with the Industrial Age. In this organization, volunteers cooperate in overlapping involvement, with dense networks, either in the organization or the community it serves. There is a strong leadership core. The organization is a place for socializing and linking with other volunteers.

The modern nonprofit or voluntary program, that serves the interests of the reflexive volunteer, is significantly different. There has been steep growth in staff-led organizations, where the focus is on the client, not the volunteer giving service to the client. There are also “market driven” organizations where membership is really a “vicarious” rather than active commitment. This market driven organization acts as a broker between the more traditional community groups and the reflexive volunteer who does not need or desire contact with the organization with whom they are working.

The reflexive volunteer is more comfortable in the new organization because they do not participate for the sake of belonging to a group, but wish to focus more on the services offered. The selection of volunteer activities is a private thing, often inspired by lifestyle and/or politics. The perceptions of the reflexive volunteer can change quickly, and a brokering organization appears better able to cope with those changes.

The authors search found their initial hypothesis to be correct for vast numbers of modern volunteers. They are quick to point out several things, however. There are collective volunteers in all age and social cohorts, as there are reflexive. The nature of volunteering is changing, but not 100%. They also note with some emphasis that reflexive volunteers are imbued with the same spirit of compassion and duty as their collective volunteer counterparts.

What are the implications of this analysis of the changing nature of volunteering?

Small Squigly Bullet Image One type of volunteering does not preclude the other existing in the same location. Collective and reflexive volunteers can reside within the same organizational framework, given attention by those who are responsible to manage them. Happy collective and reflexive volunteers need to be understood and supported for their unique needs and contributions to the organization.
Small Squigly Bullet Image Some researchers are predicting the erosion of the collective volunteer as time moves on. This could mean the death of some member based organization (something that is already happening), or older organizations changing their structure, especially as it relates to volunteers.
Small Squigly Bullet Image The advent of reflexive volunteers is causing serious changes in the relationship between the organization and the volunteer. Imagine bringing in volunteers without a specific assignment and after some training and orientation they design their own positions and write their own position descriptions. Frightening to the volunteer manager, risk management specialist, and the administration, but exciting and “right-on-the-money” for the reflexive volunteer.
Small Squigly Bullet Image Never consider changes in volunteerism without factoring in the context of such things as changes in social life, communities, work life, values, and ethics, to name a few. It is these “external” factors that are driving the change in volunteers from collective to reflexive. Think how work life has changed in the last 30 years and you see why the nature of volunteering is doing so also!
Hustinx, Lesley and Lammertyn, Frans, 2003. “Collective and Reflexive Styles of Volunteering: A Sociological Modernization Persepctive,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary Nonprofit Organizations.

Interested in more information? Check out our online bookstore for Episodic Volunteering, authored by Nancy Macduff. Episodic Volunteering book Image Episodic Volunteering Book

Interested in assessing volunteer and staff relations in your program?

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Close to 200 colleges and universities offer academic programs on nonprofit and volunteer sector management. They are usually master's degree programs, but not always. American Humanics sponsors undergraduate programs, as well. If you are looking to push out the professional development window, consider taking a course at one of these colleges. A full list resides at http://pirate.shu.edu/~mirabero/kellogg.html. Thank Roseanne Mirabella, of Seton Hall University for keeping up with this list.

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