A number of Australian non-profit organisations (NPOs) operate in both Australia and in developing countries and rely upon local volunteers in each situation. It is important for these organisations to know how volunteerism by local people in developing countries compares to volunteerism within Australia so that valid assumptions underlie the work in different cultural contexts. While a considerable amount of research has been done on formal volunteering within Australia, to date there have been no comparable studies conducted on formal volunteering in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Formal volunteering is a relatively new concept for PNG people even though informal volunteering embodied in 'caring and sharing', is recognised as the 'Melanesian way' (Kidu 2000).
This paper reports a pilot case study of an Australian NPO working in PNG that uses local PNG volunteers in a number of its programs. The results indicate that understanding of formal volunteering in PNG may be significantly different to that in Australia. PNG people who work as unpaid volunteers are regarded by community members in mixed ways. They may be perceived by some as extremely dedicated, but by others as humiliating both themselves and their communities. To be called a volunteer can even be considered insulting.
A review of the literature relating to Melanesian culture suggests that the gift-exchange paradigm (Gregory 1982; Carrier 1991) may be a fundamental influence on attitudes towards volunteerism by PNG people. This paper proposes a gift-exchange model for assisting an NPO to make formal volunteering culturally appropriate in PNG.