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Wednesday 08 October 2008

Cheers to the volunteers!

Posted in: Community
By Matt Akersten - 30th September 2008

Fun & fabulous: Auckland's Big Gay out requires a large number of willing helpers
When money's tight, time is short and the demands of a sophisticated LGBT community are increasingly stringent, it can be tough keeping an organisation going – and the ones that succeed are the ones with a strong, committed volunteer base.

But in these "what's in it for me?" times, when the struggle for gay equality can seem all but over, do our communities' many non-profit organisations still attract as many committed volunteers as they used to?


Jonathan Smith, the organiser of Auckland's annual Big Gay Out, says he always needs at least 60-70 volunteers for the day, and they can be hard to find. "From stage coordinators to traffic marshals, bucket collectors to stall coordinators, there's a variety of requirements for an event this size," he explains.

"The number of people attending is not declining, however the number of people who are prepared to help are declining. One of the reasons people give is that 'I give a lot to the community – this is the one day of the year that I can have a good time, have a few drinks, and relax.'

"The only way I can really get people on board now for the Big Gay Out is if I say to them 'can you just give us one hour?'

"There just doesn't seem to be the same 'giving back' to the community,” Smith believes. "Maybe that's an indication that our community is changing, as we diffuse out into the wider community."

Smith says he makes sure his volunteers are looked after. "I always try to give them something, even if it's as simple as a T-Shirt or pre-packed lunch."

Commitment: Volunteers rehearse for the Queen of the Whole Universe pageant
He also needs a huge amount of people to commit to the Queen of the Whole Universe fundraising pageant each year. "Last year with cast and crew we had 160 people. Not just the cast, but dressers, stagehands, front of house people, and support cast. But I get higher numbers of volunteers for Queen of the Whole Universe, and that's a much longer commitment than for the Big Gay Out. The Big Gay Out is just two days – a briefing day plus the event – whereas with the Queen of the Whole Universe, some of those volunteers are required to be committed for six, seven, eight weeks.

"What would scare me is if we did a HERO Parade," Smith concludes. "We would probably need around 200-250 volunteers. I don't know if you would get it."

It's well known in LGBT event management circles that, whilst the first two or three Hero events were staffed almost completely by volunteers, as the event grew larger, broader and more fabulous, with the inclusion of more events and especially the development of the Hero Parade, more commitments of time and professionalism were required. More and more input was paid, including for example riggers, designers, security and ticketing.

The conflict this created was exemplified when the LGBT volunteers were asked to bring their packed lunches to the parade float workdays, whereas lunch was laid on for the paid - and largely straight - crew. The cost of paid input and strain on Hero's volunteer base were significant elements which eventually doomed the parade and the mega-huge parties.


Jonathan Smith's thoughts on volunteerism are echoed amongst other LGBT organisations across the country. The NZ AIDS Foundation used to have many more 'condom pack packers' than they do now – their active volunteer list used to have hundreds of names on it - but that has whittled down to very few these days. Meanwhile, Rainbow Wellington's secretary Tony Reed says his organisation is "a bit stretched" for volunteers too. "You can only ask so much of people," he realizes. "Some who do very well for us resist having anything else dumped on them – which is fair enough."

Party time: You can help plan the next big LGBT event
Michael Modrich has for several years now been the co-organiser of Auckland's Hero Party plus other Festival events and dance parties. He remembers the early days of Hero and how he got into volunteering: "My first involvement was at Hero 3, because my friend was the volunteer coordinator and managed to twist my arm. It was very rewarding as I met some really great people – some of them are still good friends now.

"In the old days of Hero, the over-arching cause was HIV awareness and fundraising. But I don't think the gay community as a whole has a unifying cause anymore. Some people don't consider HIV a threat, even though it still is. We've got civil unions and equal rights effectively in most areas. So there's no 'rally point' - and there's a lot of things that people take for granted."

Modrich is sure there are still a lot of potential volunteers out there who are willing to lend a hand – but some don't know how to engage with organisations. "Although they might have lots of skills, they never thought they'd be involved or didn't see an opportunity. Normally people get into things because they know someone. So Hero needs a volunteer coordinator who can go out, meet people, and link in with the community – encouraging people to get involved."

You also need people there to mentor volunteers, make sure they have all the resources they need and generally keep up with how they're doing, he says.

"People also need some form of reward for their efforts – whether it's just praise, or public recognition, or some form of payment. It helps to understand why people want to be involved – what they want to gain from the experience. Often it might just be to help others, or be part of a community.

"There's a lot to be gained from the volunteer experience, and you get out of it what you put in," Modrich concludes.


The OUTline LGBT telephone counseling service is incredibly reliant on unpaid people who are ready and waiting for the phone to ring after hours and on the weekends.

"We always need new people," manager Lesley Belcham tells us. "We have 40 very active volunteers, but we have around 90 on our books. So we are really lucky, but trying to keep the numbers consistent is our biggest challenge."

Volunteers on OUTline's phones need quite a high level of training various areas including phone counselling skills along with database and information gathering abilities.

"The initial part of our training is thirty hours, over two full weekends," explains Belcham. "We have a male and a female facilitator, along with guests from community groups coming and talking about specific topics. Then after that you do three sit-ins on the telephone with a trained councilor, then further shifts with a trained councilor there for assistance. After that, we regularly get in touch with our volunteers to check they're OK with the content of the calls and that they're doing well."

OUTline requests that its volunteers do a minimum of one two-hour shift a month. "Every three months should be a weekend shift – since they're harder to fill. We also do regular councilor development meetings every month to keep everyone up-to-date, and also send out regular updates and newsletters."

Finding volunteers is time-consuming, but Belcham says OUTline has been very lucky in getting a lot of interest from people. "Our biggest recruitment drive is usually at the Big Gay Out, where we sign up lots of people at our stall. This last year was a bumper, one for us with over 40 people recruited.

"For us, the hardest thing is keeping people committed to us long-term.

We expect a few to drop off shortly after going solo, since it can be emotionally draining. It's not for everybody – sometimes you don't know if you'll feel comfortable until you're put on the spot."


Involved: Rainbow Youth has lots of jobs to join in with
Happily, there's always lots of people who want to help out with Rainbow Youth, says its youth coordinator Robert Marshall.

"We have a database of at least 40 volunteers. We probably get two or three people a week who either email or ring up and say they want to get involved and help the community," he says.

"We've got lots of activities on at the moment, but organising all the volunteers can be a lot of work itself. They need a role and some structure – then it's easy to jump in and do stuff."

Rainbow Youth's drop-in centre on K' Road is now open on weekends, and more people are needed to increase those opening times, and help with special events like the Big Gay Out and the Grey Lynn Festival.

"We try to have an event each month, plus we have our big ones like the Prism Dance Party, which we always need volunteer help with. We've also got our regular peer support groups, and we train people up to be peer facilitators, who oversee the groups and run activities. Our library, which is full of new books and DVDs, always needs looking after.

Fundraising and activist things are good for people to do too. So there's a full range of stuff people can get into."

Rainbow Youth has been around for 19 years, and Marshall believes it is going to grow a lot in the next twelve months or so. "The people that volunteer for Rainbow Youth are the basis of what makes us strong. Every one of our members who comes in and takes on responsibilities really helps make Rainbow Youth grow and get stronger."

So, as organisations like Rainbow Youth in good health there's a ray of hope for the future. In the present, the door is open for all LGBT people to get involved in our communities' many good works – whether you can only spare an hour once a year, or have regular evenings and weekends available. You're sure to make new friends, enjoy new experiences and pick up new skills.

You can contact some of the organisations mentioned this article through the links below, and provide your feedback on LGBT volunteerism via's Forum. And yes, also is a largely volunteer-based not-for-profit glbt community project.

Matt Akersten - 30th September 2008