Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: VOLUNTEER.

Volunteers was a popular song by the late-seventies US West Coast Rock band, Jefferson Airplane. It was about the turmoil then wracking America, the opposition to the war in Vietnam and the social revolution then filling the streets of the country.

The idea of voluntarism, however, is probably more at home in Australia where communities have long-relied on voluntary service to provide their needs. Unlike some other countries, in Australia communities rely on voluntary bushfire fighting and emergency services units to respond to crises. They, like so much else in Australian society, are supported by the voluntary service of ordinary people who turn out to assist in times of crisis.

There is a great Australian tradition of voluntarism. I could add the volunteers of the search and rescue units who go out in sometimes-awful weather to search for lost bushwalkers.

The limits of voluntarism

Today’s hectic working lives serve as a brake on the voluntarism that is so much a part of Australian culture. The time poverty stemming from long working hours, the practice of taking work home to complete and too-heavy work loads add to demands on time such as weekend family activities, the need for social time and time alone to wind down and chill out. Critics would point out that this workaholism, both voluntary and enforced by working conditions, is how neoliberalism suppresses voluntarism, community benefit and self-help.

These time limitations affect community organisations. People want to contribute but what they can do is necessarily limited. Even though their potential is greater, a lack of time limits what voluntary community organisations can achieve.

Unrealistic expectations

It is unfortunate that some in government have unrealistic expectations of people’s willingness to contribute to the greater good through voluntarism.

More than once I have heard local government staff saying that the ‘community’ will do something they want them to do, that communities will supply the voluntary labour and skills to make happen something that staff have devised. In my experience this is found mainly in the area of environmental management. People in the community taking on what council staff suggest happens, but my experience in local government and in the voluntary community sector suggests that it is those ideas that communities themselves come up with that stand the greater chance of voluntary engagement.

In instances like this, council staff are outsourcing work to volunteers that they are paid to administer. That can work but it works best where volunteers steer the programs, where they have authentic participation and autonomy-in-cooperation with council staff in implementing the programs. Pushing the responsibility for council programs onto volunteers can, sooner or later, hit the wall that is limited volunteer time.

Seemingly contradicting this was the stipulation on voluntary work I discovered when working for the City of Sydney, the council that administers the central Sydney conurbation. There, staff were not permitted to do more than ten hours voluntary work a week. Apart from the City taking control of peoples’ lives outside working hours, it situated the council as the main thing in staff life, a potentially erroneous assumption.

I imagine it was treated in the same way so many government impositions are treated by Australians, by completely ignoring it. Even though I didn’t contradict the City’s attempted control of my personal time by working voluntarily in excess of the stipulated time, I never considered it when doing voluntary work. Some government and corporate attempts to control personal life and freedom are best ignored.

Extending voluntary work

If time places constraints on voluntary contribution then perhaps it is time to look at ways of extending the work that volunteers do.

One of the recommendations of health authorities and ageing researchers is that retired people can remain mentally and physically healthy and active, and continue to contribute to society, through social engagement. Combining this with support work for the voluntary community sector is what many already do. Institutionalising that by paying skilled support people would both contribute to personal and community health and enable voluntary organisations to do more.

I am not talking about replacing volunteers with paid staff. What I am talking about is government paying retired people and those on a pension for doing administrative and other support work, perhaps a day or more a week according to their wishes, a tax-free loading on their pensions that does not count towards the allowable earnings limits for pensioners. This would of course be a voluntary arrangement.

Other than improving the quality of life for those engaging with this opportunity, society benefits in freeing up volunteers to do important implementation work, government budgets benefit by reduced health expenditure and voluntary community organisations benefit by having some of their work done in a way that increases the capacity of the organisations.

Government unlikely to lead

I don’t hold much hope of government doing anything like this. Their focus on expenditure is to cut social programs while at the same time increasing their own pensions, which amounts to lots of money for doing nothing. That’s in Australia, anyway, which accounts in part for the traditional Australian cynicism towards politicians and their low social status.

Perhaps one day we will have a government for whom imagination is not a foreign concept, a government willing to try something new over the long term. Paying what for government is a modest sum to people to do the work of supporting Australia’s voluntary sector would be an investment in community health, community self-help and a more resilient society.

Photo: Over app.


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