I’ve been reflecting recently on why so many of us find it so hard to influence others about the value and importance of volunteering and volunteer management. I haven’t come up with a simple solution (sorry!) but I do think I’ve decided on an important cause.
A problem of influence
But first, what do I mean when I say so many of us find it so hard to influence others about the value and importance of volunteering and volunteer management? Here are some examples of situations many of us might struggle to change:
- Volunteering isn’t given strategic consideration in the same way as other resourcing issues are at a senior level. Fundraising strategy, people strategy, risk strategy – all get top management attention. Volunteering typically gets delegated down to the Volunteer Manager.
- Volunteers are seen as nice-to-have but non-essential in the fulfilment of the organisation’s vision and mission. They are viewed this way by board members, senior management, managers, paid staff…and sometimes even the volunteers themselves!
- The budget for volunteer engagement is one of the first to be cut because: volunteers are free and; well, volunteers are easy to recruit and manage aren’t they, so we don’t need volunteer managers do we? – anyone can do it!
- Volunteer management roles are graded lower than other comparable roles, often as co-ordinators or administrators and not as management, at least not senior management.
- Volunteers are viewed as second-class citizens, not invited to team meetings, not trusted with certain roles or access to information etc..
So what may be a significant cause of all this? What I want to focus on here is a lack of understanding, appreciation and awareness of the essential role volunteers play in our society1.
Volunteering is woven into the fabric of life in the UK yet is largely invisible day-to-day. It’s something we seem embarrassed to talk about with each other. When was the last time someone you know waxed lyrical at a party about the volunteering they do?
Volunteering seems to have a cultural stigma of Victorian noblesse-oblige, the well-off doing charity to the less well off. It’s still seen as older ladies doing good for others. That’s very 19th Century and not in keeping with our 21st century modern world, so we brush it under the carpet.
With the exception of those few post-Olympic weeks in late 2012, volunteering doesn’t get much public attention or celebration. Even the honours system introduced a lower-status gong for volunteers (the British Empire Medal), placing volunteers below the level of others who get the more well-known MBEs, OBEs etc..
When volunteers do get coverage in the media they are mostly talked about in the context of austerity and public funding cuts. The undertone of these stories is that volunteers are well-meaning but incompetent amateurs who councils, hospitals and others involve as a way to save money and put people out of jobs.
In light of all this, it’s no surprise that Volunteer Managers struggle to influence and effect change in our organisations. Instead of being formally taught about working with volunteers, most of the people employed in the voluntary sector know little about volunteering. Worse, their perceptions of volunteers are the same as those held by wider society which, as we have seen, are not exactly positive. And that’s true if you work on volunteer engagement in the public or private sector too.
What is needed is nothing short of a change in the way volunteers are regarded in UK society. Perhaps if volunteers were seen as essential to so much of what we take for granted, then their status may go up. Consequently, we might find ourselves pushing against doors that are at least unlocked rather than slammed in our faces.
Of course, such a change isn’t going to be quick or easy. It’s going to take focus and effort, so here’s a suggestion of how we might start. I want to breathe new life into an old idea we used to discuss at Volunteering England. With UK Volunteers’ Week around the corner (1-7 June) I’d like to suggest a thought experiment – National No Volunteers Week.
Call to action
It’s a really simple concept. I’d like you to leave a comment on this blog post, or on social media, about how society would be affected if all the volunteers for your organisation stopped volunteering. For example, without volunteers there would be:
- No magistrates, so the criminal justice system grinds to a halt.
- No Samaritans, no ear to turn to in desperate times, so depression, isolation and suicide rates increase.
- No meals-on-wheels, so older people become more socially isolated and may even die alone and hungry.
- No sports groups or teams, so the health of the nation suffers.
- No first aiders, so major sporting and social events are cancelled.
- No lifeboats, so people at trouble off our coasts die.
- The closure of libraries, museums and other cultural institutions.
The list could go on and on, which is why I want you to build it with me.
Let’s get started now – how would society be affected if all the volunteers for your organisation stopped giving time? Please share your thoughts in the comments below and / or on social media with the hashtag #novolunteersweek
Together, let’s paint a picture of how essential volunteers are to daily life and take a first step to changing the culture of volunteering in our country and our organisations.
- When I say ‘our’ here I am talking about the UK, although readers from outside the UK may see these same issues reflected in your own country. ↩