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Volunteer-Matters

Language used when talking about volunteers is important

Language of volunteering

How aware are you of issues around the language of volunteering?

I had some interesting questions posed to me this week: “How does language act as a barrier or a catalyst for volunteering? For example, should we, as leaders of volunteers, talk about “using” our volunteers? Or does that objectify them and treat them as just things, like paperclips, to be used? What other words might be better?"

After I was asked these questions, I went back over months of my past blogs looking to see if I had ever said “use” in that context. I have to admit that I had. Not often, but it was there.

Another problematic word I found was speaking of “your” volunteers, a word that denotes ownership. Using it about people is scary. Or is it? I also commonly say things like “your sister” or “my son”. How else would I say that? “The male child of my body”? There are no easy answers.

But do the words actually matter? Our society, at least in Western countries, has become far more aware of the negative connotations of words.

On LinkedIn the other day, I saw a post about the importance of “human skills”, and someone made a comment that they were glad to see that the person posting didn’t say “soft skills”. The word “soft” was considered by them to be weak, as opposed to the stronger “hard skills”.

I had never thought of it that way but I can see how it might be viewed as such. The important thing is that other people do see it that way. So, I try to avoid that phrase now.

Are specific words actually barriers or catalysts? That decision is really above my pay grade. It’s something some university program should do a study on.

That said, in my opinion, if there are even a few people who see this as an issue then we, as leaders, should to be cognizant of it and make every effort to avoid words that could be seen as denigrating or objectifying.

Let’s face it, it wasn’t that long ago the “N” word was considered just a word, and why would anyone be upset about it? Our world is changing and we need to change with it.

More importantly, we need to be the leaders of that change. Those of us in the sector care about how people feel. What the dictionary says a word means is less important than how people feel when they hear it. Especially when people hear it in relation to themselves.

So, can words constitute a barrier to someone volunteering? Assume the answer is yes.

Until Oxford or Harvard does some sort of double-blind sociological study on the language of volunteering, err on the side of kindness. Find words like “involve” rather than “use”, “engage” rather than “manage”.

If you’re unsure about how a word might be viewed, ask someone. Have a person – preferably someone with a different world view than yours – review your writing and tell you what they think.

English is an amazing, diverse language with multiple synonyms for just about every word. Some of them might not jump to mind right away but they are there. If you have problems, check out a thesaurus.

If you’re worried people might not understand a synonym you choose, don’t be. In my years in leadership and in public speaking, I’ve learned everyone has two vocabularies. One contains the words we use regularly, the other contains those we understand but rarely, if ever, use.

The second vocabulary is vastly larger than the first. Everyone has a thousand or more words they understand completely, but would never think to use in a sentence. We hear them on TV or read them in articles. Newscasts are full of them. People understand more than you might think. Or you could simply restructure your sentences so there isn’t a need for the word. Instead of saying “what do you use your volunteers for?” try “how do you involve your volunteers?”

Trust your own writing abilities. It may take a while to get comfortable with different sentence structures but soon it’ll come naturally.

So, let’s get back to the original question. If an organization said in a volunteer posting that it “uses its volunteers to do X”, would people not apply simply because of that?

Frankly, I don’t know. Personally, I just try to avoid using any words that might be questionable.

As long as you stay aware of the changing landscape in the language of volunteering, and you remain considerate of everyone’s feelings, you’ll be fine.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.



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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.



The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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