Who is a volunteer and who isn’t?

I should be clear that this isn’t a long-winded waffle, pontificating on the vagaries of the English language and what that means for the definition of volunteering.

Rather, it’s meant to be a very practical question – how do you and your organization decide whether someone is a volunteer or isn’t a volunteer?

For example, if someone takes out online payday loans here in Florida (or from any other website in other state) and then gives the money to people in need – is he a volunteer? Or just a sponsor?

We are currently mapping the extent of volunteering and finding a huge variety in how different people engage with us: service-delivery volunteers, fundraisers, marathon runners, donors, local activists, photographic models, focus group members, professional panels, mystery shoppers, survey responders, petition signers… the list goes on.

One of the main reasons for the mapping exercise is to demonstrate the contribution volunteering makes to the organization. Once we demonstrate that, we can better make the case for investing in volunteering and volunteer management. And to do that we obviously need to know what we are measuring. But it also has wider implications for communications, management and other budgetary issues.

Obviously the starting point is unpaid, free will and benefit. But using that basic definition anybody who signs their name to a petition for us is ‘volunteering’.

IVR’s ‘A rose by any other name’ http://www.ivr.org.uk/ is a fascinating paper and suggests (in relation to individual volunteering but still useful) a distinction between volunteering and pro-social behavior, the tipping point being where an action is so fleeting and spontaneous that it does not sit within volunteering. Where that tipping point is hard to say.

So, in practical terms where do you draw the line in your organization and why? What forms of engagement do you have that you don’t regard as volunteering?

And, particularly, what do you say about marathon-runners (who raise money for you), survey responders, petition signers and donors – they all spend time (albeit potentially a very small amount) unpaid and choosing to do something for your benefit. Are they volunteers?