I enjoyed writing this article because, after what seems like ages, I once again get to question Government plans for volunteering.
I’m not being party political. All the parties get plenty wrong on volunteering. Some even get some things right, sometimes. It’s just that I used to enjoy writing articles highlighting the apparent default ignorance of politicians about what makes for successful volunteer engagement.
So, I was eager to put finger to keyboard last week when reports started coming through in The Huffington Post that the new UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (and deputy Prime Minister), Therese Coffey, had announced a “Call For One Million NHS Volunteers This Winter” (NB. This only applies to the NHS in England). The story then even got a mention on Have I Got News For You!
I went to the UK Government website to verify the announcement and found that it is indeed correct:
”As part of the plan, Dr Coffey will also call on the public to take part in a ‘national endeavour’ to support the health and social care system, calling on the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS to come forward again. This will include a push for more volunteering across the NHS and social care.”
I have four immediate questions.
1—Why a million?
That’s a lot of people.
Where did the figure come from?
Is it just there because it sounds big and so make for a good press release, or has there been a proper consultation and engagement across the NHS that has led to one million volunteer vacancies being identified?
I’m guessing the former.
2—What will a million volunteers do?
Assuming some thought has gone into this, what exactly are these volunteers going to do to help? Answer telephones? Triage patients? Make cups of tea? Take blood samples? Give injections? Drive ambulances?
I mean, volunteers can do all those things (if the right people are recruited, screened, trained and placed), but should they be doing them?
When public sector pay is lagging far behind inflation, when strikes are commonplace and more threatened, is this really a good time to be recruiting a million volunteers into the health & social care sectors? Don’t we risk accusations of volunteers undermining paid roles and strike-breaking?
That’s not a good look for volunteering and could damage us all.
3—Is there time to get them all recruited, screened, trained and placed?
To quote Game of Thrones, winter is coming.
How are a million people going to be found, their paperwork processed, interviews conducted, references taken up, criminal record checks done, training delivered and placement secured, all in the next few weeks?
And we are talking weeks, not months. It took RVS months to mobilise 400,000 NHS Volunteer Responders during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Government seems to want a million volunteers up and running by the new year! That’s a tall order, even if some of them have been active before.
Volunteer Managers in the NHS do a brilliant job, but they are often under-resourced, like the rest of us.
Is there a massive investment in volunteer management capacity coming to meet this million volunteer ambition, and soon?
I think we all know the answer to that one.
4—Are there enough people able and willing to help?
To quote the Huffington Post article I referenced earlier:
“The government hopes that the one million volunteers who stepped up during the pandemic to support the NHS will come forward again.”
Do they now? Let’s look at some data.
Six million fewer people volunteered in the second lockdown in late 2020 than in the first lockdown that spring. The numbers dropped again in the third lockdown in early 2021. Oh, and of the 750,000 NHS Volunteer Responders recruited, over 300,000 were never given anything to do — not a particularly positive experience, as I can personally attest.
This suggests that it’s highly unlikely that there are a million people just sitting around with time to give to the NHS when the government wants them to.
It appears that the days of poorly thought through announcements about volunteering are back, announcements that completely fail to consider the practicalities and realities of effective volunteering engagement.
Politicians and officials really must do better. If they are going to come up with such ideas, however well-intentioned, they really ought to talk to the experts first — for example, Volunteer Engagement Professionals and Volunteer Centres.
They also need to invest for the long term too, so short-term ambitions like this are a little more manageable. As I said, back in 2020:
“Since 2010, local governments across England have made devastating cuts too funding and support for local volunteering infrastructure. Our network of local Volunteer Centres is smaller and weaker than it was in 2010. They do great work, many on bare-bones resources that diminish year-on-year. Then C19 comes along. Volunteers need mobilising and supporting in ways we never imagined. And, just when we need them most, the volunteering infrastructure to enable this isn’t fit for purpose. Struggling in ‘normal’ times, it simply can’t cope with the challenges it now faces. People are doing their best, but capacity is much reduced.”
I made similar points at the start of this year too, when I argued why volunteering infrastructure needs to be supported by all of us, not just those working in it.
But it isn’t just government that have to buck up their ideas.
I’m going to say it — our sector must also do better. So much of the post-lockdown narrative about volunteering has built this myth that there are millions of people who loved helping so much in the spring of 2020 that they are desperate to come forward and volunteer again. This narrative was being peddled just this week at the Labour Party Conference.
As if nothing has changed in the last two years to affect their availability and interests.
As if we were all still sat at home, furloughed on 80% pay, bored with Netflix and looking for something to fill our time.
As if, in a cost-of-living crisis, people can just find the time to volunteers and forget about making enough money to pay the bills.
In England, we have a Vision for Volunteering through to 2032. We need to use this to have a sensible, well-informed and realistic conversation that helps ministers and officials to understand how volunteers can help, and what is actually needed to make this happen.
It’s time for a reality check, and for sensible heads in government to prevail.
One can only hope.