John raises an interesting point

It’s one that has been asked of me several times before and has opened cans of worms, and although hot and bothered, Anne makes an equally good point in her response.

The way I see it is – if someone gives of their time freely, for the benefit of a charity – then they are a volunteer. Anne’s benchmark of the task description is a good way to actually quantify the value of the volunteering. So although a person who signs petitions once is realistically merely a ‘supporter’ it is still worth recognizing that many people may give time in this way – ‘micro volunteering’ (eek I hate that term). You can’t really put a cost benefit to this, or a time sheet, or ask a person to write a PDP of their experience, so you wouldn’t realistically report back that you’ve have 10,000 volunteers involved in a campaign if 9,990 were the people who logged on to sign your petition. You might however want to discuss the importance of this sort of micro activity on more general levels. On the other hand someone who writes petitions, actively encourages others to sign them, and does other activities in this area is surely a Campaigning Volunteer?

Personally I’d argue that a marathon runner does qualify as a volunteer. They are giving up considerable amounts of time, to prepare and fund-raise, and all along the way spreading your charities message and vision through the information provided to them, but if so, are organizations treating marathon runners in the same way as other volunteers i.e. induction and support, collecting E&D information, asking them to log their hours and activities, or give an exit interview?

Sorry I’ve talked myself in to a corner here! – Anyway, my point is, volunteering minutiae really is in the eye of the beholder. What is more important is clear and consistent reporting, and collecting data and using it in a way that you feel is meaningful and of value to your service.

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’ 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?