Last weekend the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities published their report, “Stronger charities for a stronger society” (NB. link opens a PDF). It’s a long read but thankfully the section focusing on volunteering runs to just a few pages (pp 62-68). NCVO have also helpfully summarised all the Lords’ recommendations in a document available online.
In this article, I want to share my initial thoughts on what the report says about volunteering. I’m not going to focus on the five associated recommendations which I broadly agree with. Rather, I want to highlight some of what I found to be good and bad in the report as well as note a few things that seem to be missing.
Two really positive things struck me in the report.
First, paragraph 300, in which Karl Wilding of NCVO says:
“All the evidence from the volunteer managers we work with tells us that volunteers do not want to replace paid staff in the sense that they do not want to put people out of jobs, but they absolutely recognise that they can contribute something to a service over and above what the paid staff delivering that service do.”
As I have written elsewhere recently, we need to take a more intelligent and measured look at the issues labelled under the broad heading of ‘job substitution’. To have Karl, the volunteering lead at NCVO, take a similar line is very welcome. It shows strong leadership by NCVO on a difficult issue.
Second, I am heartened that the Lords heard evidence suggesting there is a need for a fresh vision and drive behind volunteering (paragraph 303). They quote Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA and chair of the Modern Employment Review set up by the Government:
“How we think about a society where being a volunteer has the same status as being an employee, and it is an important part of how people feel they are fulfilled, develop and grow in their lives, is a big opportunity. We still kind of think that the big thing in your life is your work, and you then might do a bit of volunteering on the side. It may be that in 30 years it is reversed.”
To know that some thoughtful and intelligent input into the future direction of volunteering has been considered is encouraging, even if the resulting recommendations are largely more immediate and practical in nature.
As I read the report’s volunteering section I began to sigh at the limited view of volunteering expressed by some of the charities who gave evidence to the Select Committee. Take paragraph 298 for example:
”Visionary argued that that an over-reliance on volunteers risked hindering the growth of a charity. Age UK Runnymede and Spelthorne noted that charities using volunteers to deliver services were at risk, as volunteers could not be compelled to work.”
First, why must volunteers limit the growth of a charity? The vast majority of charities are completely reliant on volunteers and continue to exist and grown quite well without paid staff. Many well established and large charities rely on a mainly volunteer workforce (for example, Samaritans and the National Trust), with paid staff in the minority. Almost every charity grew from an entirely volunteer run organisation.
Second, charities do not use volunteers. Volunteers are people. We do not use people. We use things.
Third, why must services be at risk if delivered through volunteers? Samaritans services are delivered through volunteers. Lifeboat crews are volunteers. Magistrates are volunteers. St John Ambulance provides first aid through volunteers. They all seem to manage OK. Why can’t other services?
Until these patronising and limiting views of volunteers are banished, we will forever limit the potential of volunteering to play it’s full role in transforming society for the better.
Three things struck me as missing from the report.
First, I saw no meaningful consideration of the potential of older people as volunteers. The report, like so much of volunteering, focuses on young people. This youth obsession risks blinding us to the opportunities and challenges of engaging Baby Boomers and Gen Xers as volunteers.
Second, I can find no mention of the importance of local volunteering infrastructure. As I have outlined in another article, local Volunteer Centres are essential for supporting and nurturing effective volunteer involvement. I don’t expect the Lords to lobby for a return to the days when Volunteer Centres were better funded than now, but it would have been good to see their role and importance acknowledged.
Third, there seems to be no acknowledgement of volunteering as a strategic priority for the sector. Writing for Third Sector, the chair of the Select Committee, Baroness Pitkeathly said of the challenges charities face:
“Grant programmes are being reduced or eliminated, and contracts are increasingly prescriptive and short-term, stifling charities’ ability to innovate, cover costs and plan for the future.”
Whilst access to funding is rightly identified as part of the problem, where is the mention of volunteering in this strategic context? One of the unique aspects of charities is their ability to innovate, to experiment and to find new solutions through engaging volunteers. This ability to draw in talent and extend the limited budget in creative ways is a key distinctive between the voluntary sector and the public and private sector. It is how almost all charities started – volunteer effort, trying something new and finding creative solutions. To not acknowledge or encourage this aspect of volunteering is a significant weakness in any work that claims to understand and support the sector.
A final thought
I said earlier that I wasn’t going to look at the report’s recommendations. Sorry, I lied. I want to single out just one, recommendation 28 at paragraph 311:
”Funders need to be more receptive to requests for resources for volunteer managers and co-ordinators, especially where charities are able to demonstrate a strong potential volunteer base. We recommend that Government guidance on public sector grants and contracts is amended to reflect this and set a standard for other funders.”
Whilst on one level is totally agree with this I do have a worry. It’s the same worry I get whenever I see anything that places an emphasis on external funding for volunteer engagement – why do so many organisations seek external funding for volunteer involvement rather than pay for it themselves? I know resources are tight but organisations could choose to prioritise funding for volunteer involvement rather than leave this to the vagaries of external funders. Failing to do so indicates just how little importance those organisation place on their volunteers.
Over to you
Those are my thoughts on the good, the bad and the missing from the House of Lords Select Committee on Charities, at least as it relates to volunteering. Now it’s over to you. What do you think? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.