Who is Celebrating IYV? Connecting the "Streams of Service"

By Susan J. Ellis

Happy new year and happy new millennium to everyone! And, of course, happy International Year of Volunteers 2001 (For those of you, still not aware of the event, check out the https://www.unv.org/ site.) It’s finally here and I hope it will be wonderful for each of you.

As the January Hot Topic is usually reflective, I come to my keyboard asking myself: what do I most wish for in this unique year? The answer is: recognition of our scope and influence.

Sometime in the last decade, someone coined the phrase “streams of service” to encompass the major populations that attend the annual Points of Light conference. The metaphor was intended to convey the image of various forms of service, all starting from different sources, eventually meeting and combining into a mighty river with a strong current. It’s a great metaphor. Unfortunately, in our daily work, what we have is more like a bunch of puddles.

IYV provides an interesting prism. Who sees what through it? Who feels affected by the Year and intends to celebrate it--and who is oblivious to it? Let’s map the potential pool of people who could be touched by IYV.

Stream 1: They Definitely Know They’re Volunteers or Connected to Them
If you’re reading this Hot Topic, you’re probably part of this core audience! The volunteerism circle includes all those who self-identify with the word “volunteer” in a direct way and who feel connected to the “field” of volunteer management. This means all agency-related volunteer “programs” plus those all-volunteer organizations such as national service clubs who consciously consider their “members” to be volunteers. IYV is for everyone focused on volunteer work, from whatever perspective.

But, if you are working in a nonprofit organization, ask yourself whether or not the members of your board of directors consider themselves “volunteers” (which they are) and therefore feel celebrated by IYV. For that matter, have YOU planned to include this key group in your IYV festivities?

Stream 2: They’re Volunteers, but May Not Identify with the “Field”
As we all know, there are many, many activities that involve non-paid workers who either never apply the word “volunteer” to their participants or who somehow never get connected to the formal volunteerism field (Stream #1). A partial list includes:

  • faith communities
  • neighborhood and tenant organizations
  • political campaigners
  • fire, ambulance and rescue companies
  • foster families
  • alumni organizations
  • community parade and festival organizers

Sure, some leaders of these groups have found their way to volunteerism conferences or to the field’s literature, but mostly they work separately. Will they learn about and participate in IYV?

Now ask yourself: what do we consider donors to be? Are they “volunteers” in any sense of the word and ought they consider themselves included in the IYV celebration?

Stream 3: They’re Not Sure They’re Volunteers ( and We’re Not Either)
The Corporation for National Service has muddied the waters. On the one hand, they administer RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program), which everyone agrees is “truly” a volunteer effort. But they also run the Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion Programs, both of which have a minimum income requirement for participants and were conceived as a combination income supplement and community service project. Further, CNS has AmeriCorps and the other full-time stipended programs. Are these volunteers? When does a living allowance or stipend become a low wage (and vice versa)? If they’re volunteers, how come they have to obey all the laws applicable to federal employees, such as the Hatch Act (forbidding partisan political activity)?

For purposes of IYV, will we include CNS program participants in the celebration? Do they think of themselves as “volunteers”? What is the connection between “service” and “volunteering”--and does it matter?

Now add in the ongoing debate about “mandated” volunteers or, as Anthea Hoare says, “voluntolds.” These include people fulfilling hours of service through court orders, graduation requirements, or welfare reform projects. Where do they fit into IYV?

Stream 4: The Service-Learning Field
Maybe service-learning fits under Stream #3, but it is so huge that it deserves independent status. Service-learning has evolved its own specialized “field.” Educators and students have immersed themselves in all varieties of experiential learning and service, from required hours of service to totally volunteer projects done by extracurricular clubs. Students from elementary school through graduate school engage in all sorts of activities that apply classroom learning to the real world. Of course, in a majority of cases, their entry point to the community is through us--those who lead volunteer programs. But we often have a translation problem. Some students don’t like to be called “volunteers”; they do “community service.” So, does IYV relate to them?

I once did a workshop at the National Service-Learning Conference that I called “Words Apart or Worlds Apart?” Mainly nonprofit organization representatives attended, while the educators went to other workshops. The query remains unanswered.

Stream 5: Proponents of “Civil Society”
Coined by academics, the term “civil society” has swept across the globe. It means different things to different people, but at its heart the concern for civil society revolves around the engagement of citizens in their own communities. This may mean acts of common courtesy, voting, local decision-making, and other activities, but it clearly also involves volunteering. What other action allows people to put their bodies where their beliefs are? Yet, for the most part, the word “volunteer” is rarely uttered in discussions of civil society (which is why we sell one of the few books that does, thanks to Australian Margaret Bell’s wonderful chapter in "Civil Society at the Millennium"). Why not? And will the proponents of civil society see themselves in any aspect of IYV?

What IYV Can Do

The potential of IYV is to break down the dams and build bridges between these streams! Unless and until we recognize our connection with each other, instead of our differences, we cannot work together towards our mutual goal: making the world a better place. IYV offers us a neutral meeting place. If we can come together to celebrate the volunteer aspects of all our work, we will open new communication.

Energize’s Look Back to Look Ahead project (Webmaster note:  The tips shared from this project are located in the History section of our library) is but one idea for linking everyone in a community with some stake in citizen participation. For example, NYC/IYV has already scored a coup by collaborating with the “Downtown Alliance” to place a plaque commemorating the spot where the first all-volunteer organization in NYC was formed in 1737--the Volunteer Fire Department of New York. Think of the impact on visibility and on showing the connections among us if every town and city erected even one or two such historic plaques celebrating volunteer accomplishments.

Whatever technique you use, make sure you invite everyone who ought to be cheering alongside you this IYV. If you do, you’ll find 2002 and beyond to be much more powerful.

Have I missed any "streams"? What have you done or do you plan to do to reach across these sectors? If you are part of Stream 2 through 5, how do you think your "stream" views IYV?

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