I had a recent conversation with someone with a degree of influence in a local area that stopped me in my tracks. This person didn’t see the point of volunteer centres. Given that we were talking about increasing the quantity and quality of volunteering I was a little lost for words.
So much is expected of volunteering these days. It’s meant to help with social cohesiveness, employability, crime, health, regeneration and just about every local or national government agenda you can name. However no one with any clout seems to understand that this doesn’t all magically happen out of thin air. Elsewhere I’ve talked about the importance of volunteer management, but volunteer management needs support too. Volunteer centres provide locally delivered guidance, facilitate peer learning and support, help develop local programmes (how much supported volunteering would be going on without VCs to drive it?), not to mention campaigning and promotion.
One of the biggest problems VCs face is that their brokerage function is grossly misunderstood. Realistically they’re not going to ever place more than say 5% of the volunteers in their area, and as they’re seen by some as simply being recruitment agencies this can look like a failure. Well, firstly as I said above VCs do a lot more than recruit volunteers. Secondly, the people they do place are exactly the people who do need more support. They’re people unsure about where to volunteer and in what capacity. They’re people who lack confidence. They’re people new to the area or the country who do not have the links/knowledge to find voluntary work directly. They’re people with additional support needs of some kind.
It was noticeable that the Commission on the Future of Volunteering didn’t have much to say on Volunteer Centres, and what it did was ignored by government. This seems symptomatic of a long term failure at that political level to appreciate the need for local support for volunteering.
Unfortunately our Volunteering Champion doesn’t seem to understand this either, else she’d be spending every breath shouting for adequate funding for volunteer centres.
I should say here that I no longer have a particular axe to grind. When I was working for Volunteering England you could argue that I’d just be saying this kind of thing because I was part of the VC infrastructure. I’m not anymore, and on top of that I’ve never had any illusions about the quality of some Volunteer Centres. However, the poorer examples I’ve seen have generally been that way because they are underfunded, not because the VC model is flawed. It’s clear from my blog posts that I have the bitter heart of a true cynic, yet I am always impressed and inspired by the work carried out by VCs.
We can all go on about how great volunteering is. How vital it is to our society and to individuals. But this talk is meaningless if there’s no material support for volunteer engagement, and if people holding the purse strings just expect it all to happen through cosmic serendipity.