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Jenny Onyx on imminent death of volunteering

by on May 23, 2013

The move to formal Duty of Care regulations is killing the heart of volunteering within a caring situation. Within NSW in particular but other jurisdictions as well, more and more organisations are imposing new regulations to control the actions of volunteers. This is having a serious but unrecognized negative effect on both volunteers and their clients.

The best volunteering in a caring relationship is one which develops a deeper level of trust and closeness over time, thus bringing meaning and personal support to the client and enhanced well-being for the volunteer. This applies to those most vulnerable and in need of a close, supportive relationship: children from troubled home backgrounds, the frail aged living alone, those diagnosed with a terminal illness to name a few. Volunteers who make an ongoing commitment to these clients have the time and interest to spend , in a nonprofessional setting.

However, the charitable organisation must operate within existing legislative and regulatory requirements, such as Civil Liabilities Legislation, usually designed to protect the public from unscrupulous predators, but also to protect the organisation from potential litigation. From an organisational point of view, it is imperative to establish managerial control over all employee activities, involving both paid and unpaid workers. This requires imposing rules of “professional distance” on volunteers. Such rules include limiting the amount of time the volunteer may spend with the client, restricting the exchange of personal information, limiting the location in which volunteer activities can occur, forbidding physical touching.

In fact none of these activities are forbidden under civil liabilities legislation, which requires only that volunteers act in good faith under the authorisation of the employing organisation. The new rules are not required by legislation, but are being imposed by organisations in a zealous desire for greater managerial control of their volunteers. They are rarely written or publically available regulations, but rather informal rules introduced during training.

Some of our research suggests that these new imposed rules are counterproductive, in that they prevent the volunteer from doing what is most valued, and that is to form a close supportive relationship with the client. Indeed, I would go so far as to say the best volunteers in a caring relationship are the ones who break the rules. Someone just diagnosed with cancer may ask only for someone to hold their hand, give a hug, just be there for them……

Of course there are predators and those who may abuse the trust placed on them. We already have safeguards in place, such as police checks to prevent these. And there are other ways that organisations can monitor their trusted volunteers than by applying these heavy handed regulations.

Volunteers are not professionals. They lack professional skills and authority. But they have something the professionals by and large lack: time, personal engagement, compassion.

I recommend a new book published by Peter Lang, edited by M. Kramer, L Gossett, and L Lewis titled : Volunteering and Communication: Studies from Multiple Contexts  . I have a chapter in that book titled “Breaking the rules: the secret of successful volunteering in a caring role.

I welcome your thoughts and personal experience, both from the perspective of clients and volunteers, but also nonprofit managers.

Jenny Onyx

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