Participaction – The new name for volunteering

I have been in denial. No, I am not doing a bad joke about a river in Egypt, but referring to my coming around to the notion that the word ‘volunteer’ is not as cool and sexy as it used to be. The concept of giving time to help others is still very much cool, it’s just that the word volunteer is not so much.

This is hard for me to accept. I am a passionate and determined proponent of volunteering and firmly believe and can demonstrate that volunteers, every day, change the world to make our communities better places. How can the notion of someone giving just a little bit of their busy lives to help someone else not be seen as amazing or cool?

The problem is that volunteering actually covers a vast range of activities but is often used to refer to something far more narrow, namely formal volunteering, i.e. a formal defined in detail volunteer role within a charity, usually involving the volunteer committing time regularly on an ongoing basis. The reality is that volunteering covers all giving of time, including informal volunteering such as being a good neighbour or baby-sitting for a friend, micro-volunteering such as Be My Eyes or ad hoc volunteering.

Although any giving of time is volunteering the core work of Volunteer Centres is focused on formal volunteering, acting as a much needed volunteer recruitment service for the thousands of great charities that desperately need the involvement of volunteers to support their service to the community. However, I strongly believe that Volunteer Centres should not be constrained by such a narrow field of work and that they can and should work to promote and develop all forms of volunteering.

In the last couple of years the word ‘participation’ has become more popular. There is a significant strengthening trend and desire to create a more participatory culture within communities where people feel they should and can be the part of a solution to a problem rather than simply writing a letter of complaint for their local authority to deal with. To help make communities more resilient and cohesive, there needs to be tools as well as a culture to enable people, organisations and businesses to work together to tackle priority social issues.

Although this type of participation or social action is, technically, very much volunteering it is not really seen as such by those who are doing it. I know of a couple of people who would actually hate and object to being described as someone who volunteers but they often give their time informally, which is still volunteering but they will not hear of it. Those in a street who campaign and fundraise to improve the environment and air quality in their area would probably not consider themselves volunteers, but yet they are.

So, instead do we say they are participating? The word participation is by itself too vague to be used. It’s not enough to say someone is participating, it needs to be stronger and suggest something positive, that it creates action leading to a change.

Put that all together and we have Participaction. Admittedly, the word looks better than it sounds, but it encapsulates exactly what is desired from volunteering today. Participaction covers both informal and formal volunteering that delivers positive action through a person participating in their local community. I am not suggesting abandoning the term ‘volunteering’ but sometimes new terms help focus motivations through aligning with current trends.

So Participaction is still volunteering but it’s framing it in a way that reflects the way people want to volunteer today. Whether it’s formal or informal, volunteering today needs to take a participaction approach to get high levels of engagement and support.

Published by Dominic Pinkney

Expert on volunteering, CEO of Camden and Hammersmith & Volunteer Centres as well as not-for-profit social enterprise Works4U

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