What’s in a name?’

toys letters pay play
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’m passionate about language, I love words, admittedly my spelling isn’t great and my grammar needs a workout but I regularly get both amused and bemused by the way we use words to communicate or at least we try to.

We use the same words to describe different roles/activities; different words to describe the same role/activity and sometimes we even have our own in-house lexicon which is completely incomprehensible to others.

Recently there have been a couple of really thought provoking blogs one about by Erin R Spink and Rob Jackson about words we really ought to stop using in relation to volunteering, and a brilliant piece by Meridian Swift with some new words that artfully sum up some of the interesting behaviours we see in and around the wonderful world of volunteering – re-snacking is definitely my new favourite!

Personally I have been thinking a lot recently how we use words to articulate what volunteering is to those outside our organisations, particularly in a recruitment context, and also how language changes over time and how we respond to it.

There is much debate over whether the term volunteer is itself out-dated with some believing it carries the connotations of being locked into regular, lifelong commitment to a single organisation.  I’ve also seen it used negatively as a collective e.g. ‘the volunteers feel’ or divisively as in ‘the volunteers won’t like it’.  My personal pet hate is name badges with ‘Volunteer’ in large friendly letters and neither a personal name nor role.  In the words of the late and much missed Susan Ellis

‘Volunteer is a pay grade not a job title’!

I’ve also listened with interest to discussion about how, as the range of ways to interact with organisations becomes ever broader and the lines between supporting and donating become ever more blurred, we might consider moving towards ‘participation’ as being more appropriate substitute. To be honest I can’t really see people saying ‘I participate’ with the local PTA , Scouts etc so I think ‘Volunteer’ will be with us for a while longer.

For me I think the bigger challenge is how we capture the essence of roles with which we seek to engage new generations of volunteers in an inspiring identity that will connect us with them and their passion. It feels like the majority of organisations stick for the most part, to one of three options when naming roles

  1. Task/Function – Story Teller, Fundraiser
  2. Event/Experience – Games Maker, Experience Maker
  3. Creative/Feelings – Imangineer, Inspirator

There is definitely a shift towards the latter two as we see an increase in social activism and cause related volunteering but whilst these ‘natty’ titles may be eye catching they might just be too vague to sufficiently grab the attention of the people with the skills and experience we are looking for.

In addition there is the whole question around how language evolves over time  – as I sat in a meeting the other day where something was being described as being made to appear like a ‘dark art’ I was trying to remember how we used to describe such things in the world before Harry Potter.

It is easy to update role names (often without fundamentally changing the role) but it can be more challenging to take the current cohort of long serving volunteers (that may be emotionally attached to their current moniker) with you.

At the risk of being too radical perhaps the answer lies in becoming less focussed on titles and more focussed on brief but engaging and meaningful descriptions. For me there is something rather appealing about a short inspiring summary rather than a two dimensional title for example

‘Time travelling photographer, recorder of changing landscapes’

‘Lover of Literature’

‘Mountebank and Money Magician’

But of course we could simply focus on finding great people with skills to help us deliver what needs to be done and let them call themselves what they will?

After all in the words of William Shakespeare

What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose would smell

as sweet by any other name.

photo of pink roses in vase
Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) on Pexels.com

One Reply to “What’s in a name?’”

  1. Thanks Carol, great post! I’m leaning towards using the word “advocate” so that anyone who helps an organization, whether by donating or giving time and skills is seen as a fully participating partner. An advocate dedicates their time to spreading awareness in their communities, something not traditionally captured by organizations. By using advocate, we can elevate volunteering as a higher form of advocacy-same with mega donor.


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