Warning! We're about to Waste an Opportunity!

By Susan J. Ellis

It is over two years since the United Nations declared 2001 as International Year of Volunteers. While this fact has been broadly publicized, many are rightfully disappointed in what is NOT happening. You can visit the IYV2001 Web site yourself and see what you think : http://www.iyv2001.org

I have consistently said that IYV is "ours" and we shouldn't wait for someone else to coordinate it--and that my biggest fear is that the volunteer community might waste this unique opportunity. Unfortunately, this fear seems to be coming true. So, in a last-ditch effort to stimulate productive discussion, I’ve decided to “go public" with my frustrations.

Background Information
First some background information/explanations might be helpful. Then I'll talk about what could still happen. My particular concern is the lack of movement in the United States around IYV and many of my comments reflect this perspective. However most of what I write applies throughout the world and I encourage all nationalities to respond.

1. The UN apparently does not fund its "Year of __" events--it just designates them. It also appoints some unit of the UN to be the contact point for the "Year" in question. For the International Year of Volunteers, they assigned what seemed a logical choice: the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program. UNV is a Peace Corps-type program placing volunteers from all over the world into other countries for economic development assistance (in fact, the Peace Corps is the US affiliate of UNV).

2. While the UN is headquartered in New York, not all its agencies are. And, as it turns out, UNV is one of those NOT located in the U.S. It operates out of Bonn, Germany. That's why you'll keep seeing a German address on all IYV2001 materials. Further complicating things, of course, is that the 150+ UNV staff are scattered around the world, working in each of the countries that receive UNV volunteers.

3. Because UNV is a full-time, stipended volunteer effort, the UNV staff really knows very little about what we call the "volunteer community." Legitimately, UNV staff are more tied up in international affairs, developing country (they don't say "Third World") concerns, and work projects of year-long duration or more. UNV initially saw IYV2001 as a diversion from their primary work (as it meant lots of extra stuff to do without extra money). Then they began to view it as a chance to position UNV more visibly. So there has been a good amount of internal United Nations politicking going on.

4. UNV started off admirably with a wonderfully-worded mission statement and various documents that (to me and I suspect to most of you) sound exactly on target in terms of cutting-edge volunteer issues. They articulated goals for IYV that went way beyond "feel-good" celebrations. On paper, IYV had (still has) the potential to focus attention on the support volunteers need, the importance of funding volunteer efforts appropriately, respect for the skills of volunteer leadership, etc. Read their material and you'll see some wonderful things. UNV also recognizes that the word "volunteer" engenders all sorts of stereotypes (even in other languages) and has tried hard to be as broad in scope and inclusive as possible in what the concept of "volunteering" might cover in many cultures.

5. UNV deserves praise for its vision, but they made a strategic decision that I feel was a major mistake. From the beginning, they refused to create any unifying project for the year. They felt that an international conference (such as the one in Bejing during the International Women's Year) was not very effective in terms of its ultimate usefulness, an opinion with which I agree. But apart from creating a central Web site to share information, UNV insisted that each country should develop its own, independent way of celebrating IYV2001--without any single project or goal to connect these national celebrations together. As I have already expressed to UNV leadership directly, this creates a "Multi-National Year of Volunteers," but it does nothing to stimulate an "International" one. More important, it places IYV2001 squarely in the middle of the internal politics of every nation in the world! Without an external, let's-put-aside-our-differences-so-we-can-link-with-our-global-colleagues reason to get together, the status quo reigns in every country.

6. Now it is nine months before the December 5, 2000 kick-off (International Volunteer Day--and, for some, the 2nd annual VPM Recognition Day) and ten months before the start of the year itself. In some of the developing countries, steering committees have indeed been formed and activities planned (see the IYV2001 Web site)--almost always with government leadership. UNV has decided to put quite a bit of money (I'm not sure of the source) into some sort of an extravagant sound and light show at the UN building in New York (they have hired a show business company to produce it). This is a great idea and may generate publicity at the time, but it is sizzle without steak. They also have a "quilt" idea going, in which any organization can submit photographs of volunteers (again, see their Web site). On December 5, a montage of these photos will be unveiled, creating a huge "quilt" (think AIDS) to represent graphically the diversity of faces of volunteers. Another lovely idea, really. But not tied to anything else, in my opinion.

7. Here and there I have heard of national steering committees in Europe and other continents trying to do something in their respective countries, especially those in which there is a national volunteer center under government funding. But those nations with the most developed volunteer communities are nowhere with their planning. Again, since there is no external project to motivate people to link together, the inertia of business-as-usual takes over. And so does the politics: Who should convene a steering group? What is a neutral meeting site? Who will get credit? Who will fundraise and who pays for the fundraising? etc., etc. [A special note praising NYAVA, as they are the only volunteerism folks who have moved forward independently to make sure New York Citys volunteer community celebrates IYV. They have generously shared their newly-announced mission statement and welcome comments from colleagues.]

8. Into this vacuum steps IAVE: the International Association for Volunteer Effort. IAVE has been around a long time and has a track record for running biennial World Volunteer Conferences attracting thousands of people from over 90 countries. Leaving aside any pro or con opinions of IAVE, they obviously are a natural "fit" to IYV2001. The first thing IAVE did was move its traditional conference time of late summer to January. And so, on January 14-18, 2001, IAVE's World Volunteer Conference in Amsterdam becomes the first global event for IYV2001 (see http://www.iave.org). And it should be an exciting event. Good for them for seizing the opportunity.

9. I hope that Canadians, UK folks, Australians, and people from non-English-speaking countries will respond to this Hot Topic by sharing their national plans for IYV2001. But as an American, I am at a loss. From where I sit--and I have been really looking--I see no activity at all at the national level. I have heard rumors of an American "steering committee" convened with the help of the Junior League, but none of the usual channels of communication have shared any news about this (the committee is mentioned in the IYV Website country list). Points of Light is not taking leadership in spreading the word, although they probably should. One complicating factor there is that Kenn Allen, the operating head of POLF, happens also to be the "World President" of IAVE, presenting some conflict of interest. The Association for Volunteer Administration (AVA) supposedly has an internal committee looking at this, but neither their 1998 nor 1999 conference provided an opportunity to make collaborative plans and October 2000 is too late to engage a broad spectrum of people in planning.

What Can We Do?
So that’s some background. I find myself wondering: What's wrong with us? What is it about the leaders of volunteers that we cannot grab an opportunity placed in our laps? 2001 could be the chance we’ve been waiting for to focus attention on the value of volunteers and program managers. It could be the excuse to foster long-sought collaboration among national associations mired in historical antagonisms. It could help agency-based volunteering and all-volunteer associations find common ground. And it could allow us to reach out internationally in ways not dreamed of before.

We need:

  • The involvement of every volunteer center, governor’s office, state association, DOVIA, specialized professional association, and national organization with affiliates in every state.
  • Some common theme or project. (Possible Ideas)
  • Some way to communicate both strategies and results.
  • A source of funds.

Please--if you are already planning things--let the rest of us know! If you are seeking participants in a project, ask for help! If you feel isolated and don’t know what you, as one person can do, post a response and see if someone nearby feels the same way! I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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