Volunteering needs support

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.


What part of ‘voluntary’ is so hard to grasp?

Gordon Brown has come out with yet another statement on compulsory community service for young people.  Ok, to be fair, he didn’t use the ‘V’ word, but of course subsequent reporting is full of it.  If Labour win the next election young people must clock up 50 hours of community service by the age of 19.

The focus on youth volunteering is hard to understand.  After all, young people regularly volunteer more than any other age group (according to the Helping Out national survey).  I really don’t understand what is to be gained by forcing young people into community service, other than some approving Daily Mail headlines.

The plan basically relies upon giving voluntary organisations and volunteer managers in particular a policing role.  Why should groups have to deal with young people who do not want to be there?  It will place volunteer managers (because it’s VMs who will be expected to manage these schemes) in an antagonistic role – montoring attendance and the quality of their charges’ work.

One wonders what will actually separate those carrying out ‘community service’ from people carrying out ‘community payback’ sentences.  Perhaps the ‘vests of shame’ will be in a different colour.  That way we’ll know to boo and hiss the right ones.

What are these young people going to do?  These kind of schemes rely on the idea that there is an infinite amount of work waiting to be carried out.  This is simply not the case, as the volunteer management capacity survey suggested..  Or at least isn’t if paid jobs aren’t going to be displaced.  What about people from other age groups who want to volunteer?  Are they going to find it difficult to get involved because most roles are going to pressganged youth?

Presumably what is to be considered community service will be within strict boundaries.  However,  the young people at the G20 climate camp were fulfilling an active citizenship role.  Why shouldn’t those hours be taken into account?

I can’t believe that this scheme will not meet resistance, both on an organised basis and informally.  There is no way I’d have willingly submitted to such a scheme  when I was young – I’m just old enough to have not paid my Poll Tax, and I would have resented this form of state compulsion just as much.  If popular opposition develops, which side will the volunteering infrastructure find itself on?

Brown cites Martin Luther King , who “once said that everyone could be great because everyone can serve”.   However in spuriously bringing in MLK he is missing the obvious point that serving others only carries moral weight when it is a free choice.  If you are going to quote King, there are quotations that are a little meatier and more apt to the current climate:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you beging to ask that question, you are riasing questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question you begin to question the capitalistic economy.”

“We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that [radical] questions must be raised…..’Who owns the oil’…’Who owns the iron ore?’…’Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’

Volunteering in private companies

This is a topic that I’ve had a couple of conversations about recently, sparked I think by comments from our Volunteering Champion, and a general confusion about what is volunteering and what is work experience.

Call me an old stick in the mud, but I cannot agree that involving volunteers in private companies is a good thing.  Where someone is making a private profit (as an owner or shareholder) I can’t see how volunteer involvement is anything other than exploitation.

The waters are muddied by the increased privatisation of public services.  Should users of such services miss out on the added value that volunteers bring?  I’d argue that such services should be paid for by the private company contracting voluntary sector groups, and that this element of care must be considered as part of any commissioning arrangement.

Part of the problem here is that we haven’t had a strong pro-volunteering voice able to affect local and national government agendas on such issues.  It would be great to feel confident that there was an organisation out there championing the cause of volunteering, even if that meant putting the volunteering champion’s nose out of joint occasionally.

I realise that many people will just write me off as some antiquated fossil who should just get with the times Daddy-O, but there are practical issues too.

People on benefits cannot volunteer in private companies.  Nor can asylum seekers.    That’s the current legal position, and I can’t see it changing for either status.

Government advice on work placements in private companies states that such unpaid help should be time limited – ideally to two weeks but no more than four.

I’ll sneak something more controversial in at the end.  I’m not entirely convinced that some social enterprises should be involving volunteers, even though their profits are not going into private hands.

Social enterprise covers a wide range of organisations.  I guess I’m particularly referring to those that are set up with an explicitly market driven model.  This seems like having your cake and eating it to me.  If the market is such a wonderful way of doing things, shouldn’t the workers be paid their market rate?  And isn’t this giving an uncompetitive advantage over other private companies not involving unpaid labour?


For a moment I was wondering whether Third Sector was proposing a second April Fools Day – It was the 1st October, 6 months to the day after the eponymous let-hilarity-ensue festival of mirth.  But no, it was a true story.

Youth volunteering charity v has decided that the fusty old term volunteering isn’t ‘with it’ enough, so are attempting to substitute ‘favours’ instead.  The Third Sector story is here, though you may need to register (free) to see it.  V’s home page reflects this new orientation too.

It’s a classic ploy if you think you’re selling a dud.  Windscale became Sellafield, BP changed their logo to an abstract sun/flower hybrid, illegal wars became police actions.  I remember the day that I went from being unemployed to being a ‘jobseeker’.  Apart from my UB40 being replaced with a fancier model, I didn’t feel much different.

But do v have so little faith in the product they’re selling?

I can see using different terminology for informal volunteering – encouraging people to ‘help out’ perhaps – but for formal volunteering?  Most volunteer involving organisations do not want ‘favours’, they want someone to come in on a regular basis to carry out defined tasks.

The irony is, according to the Helping Out survey, 16-24 year olds are more likely than any other age group to be regular formal volunteers.  Occasional or one off volunteering is lower, but the commitment shown by regular volunteers suggests that whatever the perceptions of ‘geekiness’, they’re not that strong a deterrent.

Having outed myself as not being a ‘youth’ with the reference to unemployment and UB40s maybe I’m hopelessly out of date.  But I think it’s both patronising and underestimating young people to avoid calling something by its name.

Volunteer, but make sure it’s patriotic

Maybe it’s me. I thought I had a reasonable grip on what volunteering means.  Two recent stories have shaken my faith in my comprehension skills.  Firstly, there’s the introduction of an American initiative to reward 4 hours of volunteering by young people with gig tickets.  Now there’s the plan to fast-track British citizenship in return for community work.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) have called for the sector to announce a boycott of any such scheme.  The confusion isn’t helped by announcements of compulsory ‘community service’ for the unemployed.

Apart from anything else, how does the Home Office think this will work?  Who would police it?  What would be acceptable volunteering?  Would direct action against a third runway at Heathrow count?  What about involvement in an informal refugee support group?

As for the gig tickets idea, words fail me.  Not to mention the fact that the poor attendees will get fobbed off with someone rubbish like Razorlight.

Shame on CSV for their craven bandwagon jumping on both these ideas.

This brings me to a wider point, and I’m looking beyond CSV to all the major voluntary sector/volunteering representative bodies.

What they have in common is that they seem to believe that they are being neutral by not taking a stand.  This is of course incorrect.  As Howard Zinn put it, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.  By refusing to take ethical positions, all they are doing is serving powerful political positions.

Volunteering is under constant threat of being chipped away.  Perhaps understandably, the power of volunteering is acknowledged by government, who want to harness it – yet by doing so they threaten the very things that make it special.  Unpaid and freely entered into.  These are not hard concepts to grasp, and they are something we should cling on to at all costs.

Volunteering throws up all kinds of issues

Here’s a new one on me – a potential volunteer turned down because he had previously vomited at an event the organisation put on.

The full story is here – do read the comments too, as it’s a decent discussion of the situation, without stooping to making fun of the situation.

Ok, so I already made fun of the situation in my title. But I think there are some issues here worth focussing on.

Firstly, not taking on a volunteer because of something s/he has done previously. I think that some people outside the volunteering world’s initial reaction would be that this should never happen. Actually this isn’t true. Decisions do need to be made based on a person’s suitability, and this will of course include prior conduct where relevant. There are the obvious cases such as certain criminal convictions. It’s also the reason people take up references.

However… This has to be kept in context. Puking and running was not very polite, but should that have stopped him from volunteering?

Secondly, the way this person was excluded (publicly thrown out) was not really excusable. We’re only getting one side of the story here, but it appears that there wasn’t even an opportunity for the individual to explain what happened – for all they knew he could have been extremely ill and gone straight to the hospital.

Any opinions on this?

Corporate social responsibility

Was anyone surprised by the recent news stories about the elaborate scheme Tesco set up to avoid paying tax? It’s hardly an uncommon practice – News International famously pay almost no tax in the UK, despite the alleged patriotism of The Sun. What bothered me about the story though was that it shows how hollow claims of corporate social responsibility are.

Tesco have been muscling in on volunteering recently, with the Tesco Young Volunteers scheme. £500,000 is a lot of money, but set that against a possible £1 billion sneaked out of the reach of the taxman and it looks rather less generous. What could that have done for public services? An estimated £12bn in tax is avoided by UK companies each year. Perhaps it’s time to give our ‘corporate citizens’ some ASBOs.

I’m not singling out Tesco here. They’ve become a favourite target recently, but they’re not evil – they’re simply following market logic. If Tesco didn’t exist it would be another supermarket in their dominant position.

What concerns me is the generalised use of CSR as a figleaf.

Recently a high profile Employer Supported Volunteering event invited a speaker from BAE Systems. BAE, if you weren’t aware, are one of the largest arms manufacturers in the world. You can argue about the morality of that I guess, but it’s harder to argue against the morality of supplying Hawk jets to the Indonesian government under Suharto in the 1990s (a regime that had killed half a million of its own people on taking power, and killed a third of the population of East Timor (200,000 people) since its invasion in the mid 1970s).

The company is under strong suspicion of massive corruption – a million pounds to General Pinochet (small fry, his death toll was only in the thousands, but there was a nice side line in torture), and hundreds of millions of pounds to the Saudi goverment. You can see why they might like some positive press.

But there’s more. BAE also spied on the Campaign Against Arms Trade. As someone who was in the circles of their activist volunteers at the time I am taking this slightly personally, but the irony of a group who spied on volunteers discovering a love of volunteering is pretty sweet.

Not as ironic as Shell or Coca Cola getting involved in volunteering when both are linked to the murder of volunteers (Ogoni activists in Nigeria and union members in Columbia), but close enough.

I realise that many people will accuse me of being political and not facing up to the practicalities of the real world. However not taking a position on such issues is political in itself, and amounts to complicity with attempts at cheap PR. Too many sector bosses seem to get seduced by the lure of some sharp suits and swish offices. It’s this kind of ‘realism’ that is crushing the sector between the Scylla and Charybdis of market forces and state control.

I’m not criticising organisations who, say, accept ESV volunteers. However, it should be on our terms. We shouldn’t be seen as a cut price alternative to paintballing or other team building days out. The sector needs ongoing volunteering, not just one off days. We don’t all have walls to paint. Companies serious about ESV should allow regular time off for staff.

And if corporations really want to be socially responsible, they could start by paying more tax. Better still, let them join the ‘Third Sector’ and become co-ops.