In 2018 James Breene of St John of God Hospital in Bendigo, decided to run a project to come up with a collective noun for a group of volunteers. I was fascinated when I heard about this and was truly moved by the outcome, by how perfect a description it was for the volunteer context, so I reached out to James to learn more.
James put the question to his volunteer team, along with other Volunteer Coordinators / Managers from the health sector “What should be the collective noun for a group of volunteers?” Participants were asked to vote on their favourite and could add new options too.
The winning term was “A Constellation” with “A blessing” a close runner up.
Some of the other interesting options were; A chorus, a bevy, a collective, a group, a treasure, an army, a flight (an in angels), a pomegranate and just one single vote for a headache! Well we've all had those days.
On reflecting on the selection of a constellation, James said, “In hindsight I thought it was a great selection and is an overwhelmingly positive and adaptable term.”
James told me the volunteers loved the description too and that they got a real boost from being part of the process. I think its a fabulous example of democratic leadership at work and the powerful outcomes that arise from doing it well.
Such a powerful and valuable exercise was this for the team that, while this survey was completed in 2018, the concept of the constellation lives and breathes within the organisation, still today. Constellation is the title of the quarterly volunteer magazine and lives as part of the ongoing narrative of the volunteer team.
“With a little creative writing you can tweak the analogy of a Constellation to lots of settings. In training, I will often remind our volunteers, that they are a constellation and that like the constellations in the sky, it isn’t about the individual stars but about the collective group effort. So there is a place and a time for the really bright, obvious stars and also a place & time for the quieter, more low key stars.” Explained James.
In times of crisis and deep profound change, such as what we have experienced with Covid - 19 this year, it is symbolic threads such as this that can create cohesion, a powerful narrative and imagery for folks to cling to. To help them remember that they truly belong somewhere, that they make a difference and to keep the good things from life before the crisis, still alive in their hearts. We know that so many volunteers have been unable to participate in their communities for most of the year, in the way they previous did. Social isolation can be devastating on the human spirit and it is strong ties to community that go a long way to helping us navigate the feeling of loss and despair.
For most of this year the volunteers of SJoG, like so many volunteers around the world, have been stood down due to covid restrictions. And through it all James Breene keeps the constellation alive;
“The clouds of covid-19 have come and we can no longer see the stars, but the memory of their brightness gives us strength. Though out of sight, we know for sure that they are still there, shining brightly in the sky beyond the clouds and that soon enough the winds of change will once again sweep through and there they will be, still shining brightly in the sky together,