Orpin, P and Stirling, CM and Kilpatrick, SI, Volunteering as Community, 10th National Rural Health Conference Proceedings: Rural Health, the place to be, 17-20 May 2009, Cairns, pp. 1-7. ISBN 1 921219 15 7 (2009) [Refereed Conference Paper]
The recognition that volunteering constitutes the heart of community is not new. However, as government and non-government sectors become increasingly focussed on the potential of volunteerism for easing their service delivery and community support obligations, there is a tendency for volunteers and volunteering to be seen as a tool or strategy for maintaining community rather than as the essence of community itself. This has very practical consequences. It can result in a bureaucratic, formalised and reductionist approach to strategising, training, managing, theorising and researching volunteering. This paper draws on a ‘whole of community’ study of rural volunteers to argue that strategies for recruitment, management, training , support and retention of rural volunteers need to be grounded in a deep understanding of the local.
A 12 month study of rural and regional volunteering, funded by Volunteering Tasmania and undertaken by the University Department of Rural Health, Tasmania involved in-depth interviews with a convenience sample of 67 rural volunteers across three rural/regional sites and a survey of 152 volunteer coordinators.
The study provides rich data on issues such as volunteer motivation, management, training, recruitment and ageing. Overlaying, and giving meaning, to all of this data is a strong sense of the importance and strength of local context - the entwining of local and personal history, culture and the social dynamics of time and place - in shaping the volunteer landscape and experience. The data reveal community volunteering as a delicate and finely balanced organism; a highly complex web of relationships, interactions and exchanges that delivers something more than the sum of its parts in terms of community well-being. The data suggest that while more formal regulatory, training and management requirements have an important place in maintaining the vitality and safety of rural volunteering, their successful translation into the local context requires great care and sensitivity based on a knowledge and understanding of local community.
The more bureaucratic and formal regulatory environment growing out of closer government focus on the role of volunteering in health and wellbeing service provision, is as inevitable as it is necessary. However, it could destroy the very thing it aims to nurture unless there is a sufficient recognition of the complexity and particularities of local volunteers and communities and the flexibility in application needed to adapt to this complexity.