Variety is the spice of volunteering

6 Jun 2022 | Articles

The year is 1995. Blasted on the radio are #1 hits such as “Gangsta’s Paradise” and “Waterfalls”, Peter Montgomery declared “the America’s Cup is now New Zealand’s cup” and “The Rachel” became a legitimate haircut request. 1995 is also noteworthy for being Cheryll Martin’s first year of volunteering at Volunteering Auckland , while attending Auckland University, before she was employed 10 hours a week to run the organisation in 1996 while still offering to do additional volunteer hours.

“Everybody has a story to tell” remarks Cheryll reflecting on matching volunteers to opportunities over this time, and she is no exception. Cheryll shares her background, what keeps her motivated, and her views on the future of volunteering.

The beginning of a lifetime passion for service
“As they were unpaid, you knew that was where they truly wanted to be” – this was Cheryll’s first impression of volunteering - hospital volunteers who comforted her during childhood hospital stays for asthma. Being from an Airforce family, Cheryll found herself moving frequently but was able to anchor herself through the local Girl Guides chapter and start volunteering herself.

She learned young that volunteering helped her feel connected to the communities she subsequently lived in.

Cheryll’s first career saw her sewing clothes for some of Aotearoa’s top designers. When her daughter arrived at age 23, Cheryll’s activity mirrored what her daughter was involved in – both professionally as she re-trained as a pre-school teacher but also in her volunteer work as she was involved in school productions. Her passion and skills intersected perfectly later as she supported the Pumphouse Theatre costume department.

The theme of Cheryll’s decades of volunteering must be “variety is the spice of life”. Her volunteering history covers helping inspect vehicles for the Waikaraka Park Speedway’s demolition derbies [as well as driving them herself!], assisting the Special Olympics ten pin bowling programme, supporting Women’s Refuge, recruiting and coordinating volunteers at events like Teddy Bear Picnics, Opera in the Park and Dragon Boat festivals and more recently expanding the 140-member strong “BB Hookers” group (crocheters) to the broader “BB Handcrafters” in the Beach Haven/Birkdale area where she teaches her many hand crafting skills.

Fuelled by a mission
Cheryll has no regrets about her career to date with “each experience having brought [her] here. Even bad volunteer experiences can be used to help others when helping develop [an NGO's] volunteer programme”. She has many initiatives to celebrate from the establishment of the Employee Volunteer Programme at Volunteering Auckland to producing the 2021 video series “The Future of Volunteering”. Also among her many involvements in supporting the volunteer sector was as a member of the Ministerial Reference Group for International Year of Volunteers in 2001, a founding Trustee of Volunteering New Zealand, supporting the development of Volunteer Centres in Northland, Hawkes Bay and Palmerston North and supported volunteering in Papua New Guinea as a tutor. She was a ministerial appointee for the Auckland Social Policy Forum [2011]. a Category Judge for the Mitre 10 Community of the Year [2019], and developed the first LoVE Awards for Tāmaki makaurau | Auckland for Leaders of Volunteer Engagement [2018].

A greater focus on measuring volunteering outcomes versus outputs is dear to Cheryll’s heart. The latter relates to our common statistics such as how many volunteers we have and how many hours they contribute - “numbers seem to be understood better than impact”.

To truly observe the “ripple in the pond” impact, we need to be telling more of the volunteer stories.

She reflects on one volunteer who came to Volunteering Auckland as a “last resort to get help”. Due to injury, they had lost their job, their partner, their home and experienced alcoholism. Through Volunteering Auckland, they were referred to the SPCA and later they received a commendation for their voluntary contribution. Their volunteering experience turned their life back on track with no longer experiencing alcholism and getting back into their own home. The story of their life slowly being rebuilt carries far more weight than their statistic as “one volunteer” or “one referral” who gave this number of hours.

That said, Cheryll loves to find out about people, she even admits she just likes being a little bit nosy. She enjoys being able to “chat with a purpose” with prospective volunteers to help them understand where their true passion lies. Afterall, it is overwhelmingly passion not skills that affect how beneficial a volunteering opportunity will be. She is thrilled to have a role that’s “more than a job. You get to have phenomenal conversations and then actually do something about it”.

The future of volunteering
Cheryll observed that the COVID-19 pandemic enhanced the role of technology in the volunteering space. Many traditional paperwork onboarding processes were streamlined, online not physical training meant many volunteers could begin quicker, and many barriers were broken down as volunteers had to learn new platforms such as Zoom. Almost overnight, people could volunteer remotely at organisations that may not be anywhere near them providing a more fluid volunteer workforce. Cheryll poses that the resultant challenge is keeping people engaged when they are unable to have those crucial in-person conversations and connections.

“Volunteering does not exist in a vacuum”. Cheryll notes that the volunteering infrastructure still needs support to ensure smooth operations. Part of the puzzle is ensuring that volunteer work and its impact is appropriately recognised so that central/local governments as well as the NGOs themselves can understand the benefit of strong investment in volunteering. For her, relationships, trust and connections are the most important things in keeping the community going strong, so having a well resourced volunteering infrastructure, that includes the person responsible for the volunteers, is vital to the health of any good volunteer involving programme.

Finally, we need to ensure we understand what drives changes in volunteer numbers and the demographic spread of those volunteers. This will enable us to ensure the supply of volunteers can match the demand. For example, Cheryll is currently looking to work with marketing students at AUT to better understand why men only comprise 30% of volunteers and how we can better appeal volunteering as a leisure time option.

During the interview, Cheryll commented that the role at times had taken over her life, adding “but in a good way!”. No doubt her sustained dedication to volunteering and the volunteer sector has touched the lives of many others in a good way too. Congratulations and thank you Cheryll on your many decades of service to the volunteering community.

Cheryll Martin was the recipient of the Companion of the Queen’s Service Order in the Queen’s Birthday and Platinum Jubilee Honours List, 6 June 2022.

Writer: Caitlin Craigie, June 2022

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