Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Voluntary Activity and Local Government: Managing Volunteers or Facilitating Active Citizenship?

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Voluntary Activity and Local Government: Managing Volunteers or Facilitating Active Citizenship?

Article excerpt

This article investigates different concepts of voluntary activity as they are manifested at the local government level in Australia. It identifies the challenges faced by local councils as they develop strategies for engaging voluntary activity and the responses to these challenges. The responses can be analysed within two paradigms, the volunteer paradigm and the active citizenship paradigm. The article argues that responses that operate within the active citizenship paradigm offer an approach to voluntary activity that is more appropriate to building active, supportive and sustainable communities than traditional approaches to volunteering.


Voluntary activity, particularly in the form of volunteerism, has become an increasingly important part of, and indeed an indicator of, the 'civic spirit' of Australia. For example, the popular media continue to laud the voluntary effort of Australians in times of national pride or need, such as the volunteer support for the operations of the Sydney Olympic Games or for fighting bushfires. We celebrate the value of volunteers through 'volunteer recognition' days and awards. At the government level, politicians encourage volunteerism as a civic duty and as an entry point for community connection. Much of the efforts of voluntary activity are based at the local level, in communities. So it is no surprise that local government has been investigating ways of engaging with the voluntary effort that promises to sustain community life. Before local councils develop voluntary participation policies within their domain they must consider how voluntary activity is constructed, its meanings and current challenges. This article explores the concepts of voluntary activity, the ways in which the practices of volunteering are changing and the challenges to traditional ways of organizing the voluntary effort.

The article draws on research conducted with Victorian local councils which was commissioned by the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) and supported by the former Department for Victorian Communities. The authors acknowledge the support for the research from the MAV and local councils in Victoria and the generosity of council officers for sharing their ideas and experiences. The analysis presented in this article, however, is the responsibility of the authors.

The research was initiated as a scoping excerise to investigate the ways in which local councils think about and develop programs for voluntary activity within a community strengthening framework. For the purpose of this research community strengthening was defined as:

Any sustained effort to increase the connectedness, active engagement and partnership among members of the community, community groups and organisations in order to enhance social, economic and environmental objectives (Considine 2004, 4).

The community strengthening framework is concerned with setting the context for mobilising community skills, expanding social and economic networks and harnessing community energy and resources to achieve collaborative and positive social change. This idea of community strenthening is not without its critics. For example, Mowbray has reminded us of the ways in which the normative idea of the homogenous and cohesive community continues to gloss over inequality. Moreover, it can provide 'a cynical and frugal means for politicians and others to obfuscate or otherwise sustain their continuing commitment to economic fundamentalism' (Mowbray 2005, 263). Such criticism poses challenges to the idea of voluntary activity within a community strengthening framework. We return to these challenges below.

Given the scoping nature of the study, fifteen councils were purposively chosen in both rural and metropolitan areas, on the basis of their practical commitment to the development of voluntary activity for the purpose of community strengthening.

In-depth interviews of council officers were undertaken. …

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