How Covid-19 may change our views on job substitution for ever

Four weeks ago I published a guest post (of sorts) from the late Susan J Ellis. It was a slightly edited version of her 2009 Hot Topic, “When the Axe Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers”.

Reading Susan’s eleven year old article got me thinking about a piece on job substitution that I wrote for Third Sector magazine in February 2017. In this article I want to revisit those thoughts with a particular eye to our pandemic affected world, not least because the idea of volunteers doing what was once paid work seems to be the main thrust of calls for furloughed charity workers to volunteer for their employing organisations.


Job substitution is a thorny, complex and emotive issue that provokes strong views. The term ‘job substitution’ itself makes things worse, implying that one volunteer can substitute for one employee, something that, in reality, is both impractical and unrealistic.

Far better terms to use are job displacement and job replacement. The distinctions between displacement and replacement may seem subtle but they are important:

  • Displacement is when paid roles are purposefully removed with the intention that volunteers can be brought in to do the work instead.
  • Replacement is when work previously done by paid roles is reallocated to volunteers. For example, an organisation is forced to cut paid roles due to funding changes, so deploys volunteers to deliver the service in a different way for the continued benefit of it’s clients (remember that in most cases charities exist for the benefit of their clients, not their employee and volunteers).

If paid roles are being purposefully displaced so volunteers can do the work instead, then concerns should be raised. As well as the issue of removing people’s livelihood, two serious errors of judgement about volunteering are probably being made:

  1. Volunteers are a free or cost saving option
  2. It is easy to recruit people who will take on those paid roles and do it for no pay

“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.” – Noble, Rogers and Fryar.

Sometimes, though, volunteers can be a preferable way to doing things than paid staff. That’s why I hate the phrase, “Volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff”. It fails to recognise the distinctive value that volunteering can bring. It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and subordinates it to a low status activity next to paid work

I’ve worked in organisations where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of clients that paid staff could never have. That credibility came from the client seeing the volunteer as someone who wants to spend time with them, not someone who they believe is there just because they are paid. In that scenario, volunteers didn’t supplement or complement or displace or replace paid staff, they brought something that paid staff could not.

I accept that these issues of who does what for the mission aren’t easy to discuss and resolve – if they were we would have stopped debating them years ago. Yet engaging intelligently and thoughtfully with these issues is essential as we emerge from the early phases of Covid-19, because the way we always did things before the virus simply won’t cut it anymore.

Not everyone who volunteered for us in the past will do so again.

Paid staff are, sadly, going to be be laid off.

Money may be in short supply as unemployment and financial hardship reduces charitable donations.

Mission driven organisations will have to rethink how they fulfil their goals with a different mix of human talent and skill than they did before.

As Albert Einstein said:

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”.

Are we as leaders of volunteer engagement ready to lead this debate in our organisations? Are we ready to challenge old orthodoxies that may not fit the new world we live in?

I hope so, because our leadership is needed now more than ever.

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