We all know that inflation is rising and the cost of living is escalating. But what might this mean for volunteering?
In late July, I hosted the monthly Voluntary Voice Live Chat for the Association of Volunteer Managers (NB. You need to be a member of Voluntary Voice to access this link – membership is, however, free). Our theme was the implications of the cost of living crisis on volunteering. Those present shared their views and experiences in an open discussion about what it all might mean and what volunteer engagement professionals need to be thinking about.
In this article I want to summarise three particular areas we discussed on the live chat and invite you to contribute your own thoughts by adding a comment at the end.
Rates of volunteering
We all know that volunteering rates took a dive during the first eighteen months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Successive lockdowns stopped many people from doing the volunteering they once did and, sadly, not everyone who stopped giving time has got back involved again.
As I write this, we are still waiting on publication of the 2021-22 Community Life Survey data for England which will give us the best indication yet of whether volunteering rates have shown any significant recovery since the lockdowns ended.
What I am aware of, however, is colleagues reporting that some people are scaling back their volunteering, or stopping altogether, as the cost of living rises.
This might be because, for example: they can’t afford to be out of pocket when volunteering and their organisations don’t pay expenses; or the rate of reimbursements is too low to cover the actual costs incurred; or there is a culture of not claiming that shames anyone who asks for financial support (I’ll come back to this later); or it takes too long to get their expenses reimbursed.
Alternatively, people may be having to reduce or stop their volunteering in order to prioritise paid work so they can pay the rising bills. Maybe they are taking on more hours at work, or a second, third or fourth job just to make ends meet, and so volunteering gets squeezed out.
Add this to the aforementioned potential for volunteering rates to be slow to recover post-lockdowns, and we might be facing a perfect storm of fewer volunteers just as demand may be rising sharply for the support our organisations provide.
The cost of volunteering from home
One of the interesting aspects of the Voluntary Voice live chat was a potential reluctance from some volunteers to work from home.
The lockdowns saw more and more volunteering take place remotely due to social distancing and shielding requirements, so it’s not uncommon these days for volunteers to be giving their time from the comfort of where they live. But, as winter approaches (at leat for those of us in the northern hemisphere), many are getting anxious about the cost of heating and lighting their homes as energy bills go up and up and up.
The Voluntary Voice Live Chat discussion speculated that either volunteers are going to want to claim some reimbursement for the cost of volunteering from home, or could instead insist on volunteering in an office where they can stay warm at the Volunteer Involving Organisation’s expense.
This raises a few questions:
- Do / should we help cover these costs for home based volunteers?
- How will our finance teams respond if, in these challenging times, we request additional funds to enable volunteering to happen?
- How might we make that argument in a way that sees volunteering as an investment, not an additional (rising) cost?
- Is there a recruitment opportunity for us to engage volunteers by providing somewhere warm for people to come, as per the current conversations happening about warm banks this winter? (And yes, it is ridiculous in 21st Century Britain that we even have to think that?
- Will some of us miss this opportunity because our organisation got rid of it’s offices after the lockdowns because it thought it didn’t need them anymore?
Reimbursing expenses is more important than ever
At a time when costs are going up and organisations facing growing pressure on their budgets, not least because demand for service may well be increasing too, asking for more money for volunteer expenses in the annual budgeting process may seem foolhardy.
Which is why it is vital to remember that reimbursing volunteers for the costs they incur through volunteering isn’t just a financial issue, it is an Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access issue as well. Put simply, we can’t claim that EDI is a priority if at the same time exclude volunteers who can’t afford to be out of pocket when they give their time.
That’s why organisations and finance teams need to be properly budgeting for volunteer expenses when costs are going up across the board, not cutting budgets, as they may be tempted to do. This means it is vital that Volunteer Engagement Professionals work hard to lobby for proper investment and support in volunteering in these challenging times.
Not only that but, as participants in the Voluntary Voice live chat pointed out, we need to do all we can to make sure volunteer expenses are reimbursed quickly, so people aren’t waiting weeks to get their money back. And we need to guard against any existing or developing culture of volunteers not claiming expenses.
To me, a culture of not claiming is worse than an organisation not offering expenses in the first place. It carries a real risk of two-tier volunteering, of excluding those who can’t afford not claim and being shamed or looked down on by those who can be out of pocket. I’ve seen it happen and it created a poisonous atmosphere that helped nobody.
Whatever the issues you face in your setting, I suspect volunteer expenses is going to be as defining topic of volunteer management in the months ahead.
So there you have it, three possible implications of the cost of living crisis on volunteering. Now it’s over to you.
What do you think might happen to volunteering as the cost of living challenges grow in the coming months?
How are you preparing?
What conversations are you having with colleagues and volunteers to plan ahead?
Let’s get the conversation going by leaving comments below.