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Volunteering &
The Power of Experiential Learning

by Andy Fryar

I'm a junkie!

I love nothing more than exploring the alternate ways that others run their volunteer programs (...yeah OK so I need to get a life!). Seriously though, I'll always pick up a brochure about the volunteer program of the museum or art gallery I am visiting. I'll compulsively look for the 'volunteer' section of any organisation's website I am visiting and you'll always find me up to my neck in the exhibits section of any conference I attend.

Learning from others is such an easy way to improve your knowledge base and improve the programs that you lead.

However, my favourite professional development activity, by a mile, is to physically visit other volunteer programs of all shapes and sizes. This is a pursuit that has led me to agencies of all shapes and sizes the world over - and has led to me implementing for myself, some of the more innovative ideas I have witnessed.

Amongst the long list of organisations I have had the privilege of visiting are hospital based programs of all shapes and sizes, cancer institutes, community based respite facilities, national volunteer centres, local volunteer referral agencies, sporting clubs, membership cooperatives, disability agencies, schools, churches, museums, performing art centres, companies with employee volunteer programs and government departments responsible for volunteering.

It has exposed me to ideas I would otherwise have never had for myself and has reinforced the fact that volunteering occurs in a wide range of alternate situations.

In addition to my work with OzVPM, I also work as the CEO of the Lyell McEwin Regional Volunteer Association, a hospital based program in the northern suburbs of Adelaide , where we have a steady stream of visitors from all around the world.

Recently, we hosted a visit by the co-author of this Hot Topic, Gillian Wilson, from the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne . Gillian's visit was a lot of fun and not only did she learn greatly from the experience, so did I. Upon her return to Melbourne , Gillian penned some thoughts about her visit, and I wanted to share those in this hot topic to encourage more of you to exchange ideas in the way Gillian did.

So here are Gillian's thoughts:


Remember when you used to return to school following the holidays, when the teacher would ask you to write an essay on the things you had done over the summer?

Well, I would like to share with you what I did for a couple of days over the summer ...

Let me give you a brief history.

I am a solo worker in a large inner city hospital in Victoria Australia . I have been working in this position for six years as the Manager of Volunteers, slowly establishing the volunteer program from around 25 volunteers to the current level of 150.

It is easy for the years to start to repeat themselves information sessions, interviews, training days, police checks all good practice standards but also all to easy to become a 'formula' that you operate to. I am lucky enough to be able to attend network meetings and a few conferences and seminars (especially when Andy and Martin [Cowling] have been able to get "the overseas experts" in) and this has always helped me to stretch my thinking a little.

In mid 2006, I decided that I wanted to start thinking about my program in other ways, but I was so locked into the day to day grind that I found this difficult. I approached my Manager and mentioned a desire for supervision / mentoring, but there was no-one within the hospital who came close to knowing or understanding my position.

It was at this point I spoke to OzVPM's Director Andy Fryar, who visited me a couple of times while he was in Melbourne . In addition to OzVPM, I knew that Andy also worked as the Executive Officer of Lyell McEwin Regional Volunteer Association, and so I thought his insights would be valuable. We discussed the possibility of Andy coming to spend a few days with me at 'The Alfred' so we could together look at a strategic plan for the future directions/changes for The Alfred volunteer program.

And this is when I had one of those 'light bulb' moments. I said to Andy, "Why don't I visit your hospital and see what you do instead!!!" Andy offered to arrange a visit to a couple of additional hospital programs (Flinders Medical Centre and Royal Adelaide Hospital ) and a date for the visit was set. It was as simple as that!

I cannot express how beneficial the experience of being able to investigate other programs was in aiding my thinking of how I have run my own programs and ways I may be able to do things differently. I am sure other volunteer managers can also benefit in the same way.

The program managers in all the hospitals I visited were honest and were only too willing to share with me both the good and the bad. They were of course all very proud of their programs and this helped me in getting to know the programs and how they were run.

So what did I learn?

  • I learnt that, gosh, I'm actually doing an OK job not too dissimilar from the places I visited

  • That even after many years (20+) in this sector that I can still learn lots from others

  • That because of this long involvement, I know what questions to ask

  • I gained valuable ideas about different plans and programs I can implement into my own volunteer programs

  • That seminars, workshops, conferences and network meetings all have a place but sometimes to really understand a program, it is valuable to have a one on one meeting with other managers

  • That others can be very generous with their time

  • We should all be willing to look after each other and that the sharing of information is something we should treasure

  • That exchange of this kind should be promoted more widely as a valuable learning tool

I'd encourage anyone to make contact with and go and explore other volunteer programs whether across the street or across the world. The benefits are vast and the contacts invaluable.


So you can see from a first hand perspective the value of professional exchange in this way. Thanks Gillian for being willing to share your experiences.

Let me finish by making a few additional points about professional exchange:

  • It need not be expensive.

    While Gillian's experience did occur over two days and involve interstate travel, it can just as easily be achieved by taking a few hours out of your annual vacation or tacked onto the end of a conference while you are already in a new place (it's worth saying here Gillian combined her visit with a stay at the beach and a weekend in the Barossa Valley wine country)

  • Don't be afraid to ask!

    In all the years I've been visiting programs I have never yet had someone say no! The truth is most people are more than happy to 'show off' what it is that they do.

  • Exchange of ideas can be short or long term.

    Some years ago now I had some involvement in an exchange that involved a volunteer manager from Australia exchanging jobs with a Canadian colleague for 8 months. (see for more details). Whether conducted over minutes or months, all exchange is valuable

  • It need not be a positive experience to be valuable.

    Even visiting somewhat 'primitive' programs can be very valuable in reinforcing all the things you are doing well in your own agency.

  • Exchange need not be physical.

    Clearly the focus of this Hot Topic is on physically visiting other programs, however, exchange can also happen using the myriad of new technologies available today.

  • Opposites can attract.

    While there is good reason to visit similar organisations to your own, there is also great value in visiting volunteer programs from different areas of volunteering to your own


About the Author:

Andy Fryar is the Founder and Director of OzVPM - a resource, consultancy and training company specialising in volunteerism - particularly as it relates to the Australasian region.

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