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Dave Thomas, NCVS Volunteering Development Officer

Mind your language

Dave Thomas Volunteering Development Officer at NCVS writes...

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. This chant has rung out in school playgrounds and where groups of children get together since time immemorial. Even as we chanted this, or heard it chanted, we knew that it wasn’t true but it reminds us that words can hurt and the way we use them is important.

If you and I already know each other, you’ll already know that I am the ultimate, grumpy old bloke and I am well aware that I’ve talked about how supporting volunteers is often a challenge. But putting flippancy aside, I am very serious about this topic.

I strongly believe that the language that we use to talk or write about volunteers and volunteering does matter. The majority of Leaders of Volunteers will already be aware of this topic but as a reminder to them, and to inform those of us who are new to the profession of Volunteer Management, I’ve collected some of the words that I will always challenge when I hear them used.

“They’re just volunteers.” (It’s even worse if a volunteer says, “I’m only a volunteer.”)

Volunteers are valuable, essential, productive human beings with feelings. The words “just” or “only” in this context, imply a lack of importance and value for the people being described. Volunteers do not have a lower status to paid workers or are of any less importance than our service users.

Try using the phrase “equal but different” instead.

“Our organisation uses volunteers.” 

It doesn’t. We use things, not people. This is a phrase that reduces volunteers to pieces of office equipment or garden tools. 

Try using the phrase “our organisation involves volunteers” instead.

“We’re desperate for volunteers.” 

It may be true that you are desperate, but if you really want to attract volunteers, expressing that desperation is looking at volunteering from the wrong angle.

Our organisations have activities and roles that they would like volunteers to do. However, we're far more likely to attract volunteers to apply for our opportunities if we can answer the question they're most likely to ask, "what's in it for me?"

Try using the phrase “we’re offering exciting opportunities for volunteers” instead. 

“Volunteer Job Description.” 

We’re getting into an area where we could be brewing up future problems for our organisation. The simple word “job” introduces the language of employment to volunteering.

If you’ve been on our Volunteers and Law training, you’ll have heard me warning about the possible legal pitfalls that some organisations have faced when employment tribunals are asked to consider whether volunteers should be treated as employees. In most of our own organisations, using the word “job” is probably the very thin end of a wedge, but why take the risk? 

Use “Volunteer Role Profile” or even Volunteer Role Description” instead. 

"Application, interview, induction." 

These three words, from the language of employment, are ones that I struggle with. They are so deeply embedded into volunteering that it is really difficult to find useful, descriptive alternatives. 

If we can think about the function of each of these processes in our volunteer’s journey, maybe we can come up with something better. Could these be better named volunteer information form, natter over coffee and showing the ropes?

Over the next few months, I plan to write a blog about each of these topics, so if you have any ideas about better names, or about things to include under each heading, I’d love to hear them. 

Over to you

What other words or phrases have you come across in volunteering that don’t feel right. These could be things I’ve said or written (I’m not perfect), or something you’ve spotted somewhere else. This is not about calling people out but helping us all to make volunteering as inclusive, enjoyable and safe as possible.

If you’d like to talk more about this, or any aspect of volunteering, please drop me an email at davet@nottinghamcvs.co.uk or give me a call on 07564 040767.


Date Posted: 
Friday, 9 July, 2021

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