Thursday, 27 August 2015

What's in a word? Revisited

In November 2013 I wrote a blog post entitled “What’s in a word?” looking at the language we use regarding volunteering. I specifically picked out issues concerning microvolunteering and internships, the latter being especially critical.

As I said at the time:

First, by colluding with the idea that internship sounds more professional than volunteering we collude with the devaluing of volunteering, subordinating it to a lower class status below real work (i.e. paid) and internships. Second, we open up a can of worms such as that created by the recent debates on unpaid internships which - and let’s not ignore this at all - risk fundamentally undermining the concepts of volunteering many of us hold so dear.

This blog post built upon some writing I’d done earlier that year.

In June 2013, Jo Swinson MP commented in a parliamentary debate on interns that:

“…basically, if someone is offering their time of their own free will and they can come and go as they please, they are a volunteer, but if they are required to perform specific tasks and can be disciplined if duties are not performed as agreed, they are a worker.”

As I said in my blog for Third Sector a couple of months later:

“So a volunteer shouldn’t do specific tasks or be held to account if they don’t do a good job? Really? Is that actually how we want to think about volunteers: people doing meaningless work that makes no contribution of any value to society whatsoever? So much for volunteers making a difference.”

Why this brief history lesson? Because the issue of the language we use to describe volunteering has arisen once more and this time through a term that many leaders and managers of volunteers seem to have been happy to adopt: ‘skilled volunteering’.

The term ‘skilled volunteering’ has been around for a short while now and generally refers to people using their professional skills to help a good cause[1]. It is in effect what many people have usually referred to as pro bono:

“Professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service. Unlike traditional volunteerism, it is service that uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them”. (Source - Wikipedia).

I’ve always had an issue with using language that omits the word volunteer to describe volunteering that requires particular skills or competence. Why draw a distinction between employees using their professional skills pro bono and someone who may be a retired professional from the same field using exactly the same skills who is only seen as a volunteer?

On the face of it then ‘skilled volunteering’ is not a bad term because at it least recognises that the people who use their considerable skills and expertise to further a good cause are indeed volunteers.

Yet for that step forwards, the term ‘skilled volunteering’ creates a huge jump backwards.

You see, as it becomes more common to refer to employee volunteers using professional skills as skilled volunteers, so we increasingly imply that all other volunteers are unskilled - nice-to-have, non-essential contributors who don’t do anything of real value in the organisation. It’s bad enough that so many people already hold this erroneous and misleading view of volunteers without introducing new terminology that perpetuates that belief further.

So, leaders and managers of volunteers please unite against the term ‘skilled volunteering’ as a means of distinguishing between different forms of giving time. All volunteering requires some skill and competence, all volunteering is ‘skilled volunteering’ in some way.

If you feel you have to use the word skilled at all when describing volunteering, then consider the compromise term of ‘skills-based volunteering’ which Corey Diamond of Realized Worth helpfully explains on their website:

skills·based·vol·un·teer·ing /skilz/bāst/välənˈtir·ēng/ verb

Any time someone uses their abilities, talents, networks and resources to get a volunteering commitment completed.

This may or may not include pro bono volunteering, which takes a skill that is used every day in your job and applies it to work to address a complex social or environmental cause.

Points of Light suggests that skills-based volunteering comes in all shapes and sizes, including[2]:

  • Individual volunteers, corporate paid/unpaid volunteers, loaned executives, interns
  • Projects completed in a day; short, medium or longterm projects
  • Activities performed during working hours or on individual time
  • Planned in advance or spontaneous projects such as disaster response
  • Application of all types of skills and talents from professional experience to hobbies
  • Content from nonprofit infrastructure efficiency effort to direct “in the field” projects
  • Local impact to national and international

Language is important. Let’s not use it carelessly and devalue volunteering, but with thought and clarity to shine a light on the contribution of all those who give their time to good causes.


  1. Both Reach and Career Volunteer have helpful definitions of skilled volunteering on their websites.  ↩

  2. Note that whilst Realized Worth do specialise in CSR and employee volunteering they do make clear that skills-based volunteering is not limited to this area of work.  ↩

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