We need to change people’s perceptions of volunteering

One of the age-old debates in the volunteering movement, often raised when organisations struggle to recruit volunteers, is whether we need a new word for volunteering (for example, v’s seemingly aborted campaign that we talk about favours instead) or whether we need to change the association people have with the v word.

I’m firmly in the supporters club for the latter option. I think we’ve wasted so much time and energy over the years debating what else we might call volunteering. Energy that could have been directed into delivering a great volunteering experience for people instead.

So how might we change people’s perceptions of volunteering?

To start with, we have to understand what their perceptions are.

My firm belief – borne out of years of experience – is that the image of the old person (frequently a woman) who gives significant amounts of time with an almost super-human dedication to the organisation is what most people think of when they think of volunteers.

This is often perpetuated by the volunteer involving organisations who frequently recognise the contributions of such volunteers by publicising their achievements in the media. Consider these examples from the USA of the publicity for Jack Lindsley and Ann Hoppe.

Reading these articles I have no doubt that Jack and Ann deserve all the plaudits they get. But think about what messages about volunteering other people reading these articles might get: you have to commit for the long haul; you have to give thousands of hours of your time; you’ll still be doing it when you are 100; you’ll be asked to take on more and more responsibility etc.

My Australian colleague Martin J Cowling observes that, in his experience, about 85 per cent of media coverage of volunteers reinforces these kinds of messages about volunteering.

We need to change the narrative. We need to start putting up examples of people just like you and me. People who lead busy lives, with multiple demands on their time, yet manage to fit volunteering into their existence. People who aren’t celebrities or, even worse, politicians. Dare I say it, ordinary people doing often extraordinary things as volunteers.

We need to show people that they too can volunteer, they can accommodate giving some of their precious time to others without it demanding years of their lives.

So, here’s the challenge for 2012.

If you don’t have examples of such people who you can hold up as examples of volunteering then ask yourself if your volunteer programme is really oriented to the needs of people in the 21st century and commit to learning how to adapt your offer so you’re relevant in this modern age.

If you do have examples of real people – ordinary people – who might help to change the public perception of volunteers, then please commit to sharing those examples with others rather than perpetuating the image of the older superhero.

Here’s to a year in which we start to change people’s views of volunteering.

6 Responses to “We need to change people’s perceptions of volunteering”

  1. Elizabeth Balgobin

    Richard, thanks for making your observations. I have said it before and will continue to say it: infrastructure/support, whatever you want to call it, is only ever recognised as valuable when it is not there. Investment in infrastructure prepares us all for the future, not just the now.

  2. Dan Paskins

    Dear Richard,

    Thanks for your article. Through our Building Capabilities approach, we are providing £6 million in targeted support to local and specialist infrastructure through our Assist initiative, leveraging more than £37 million in support for voluntary organisations from the private sector via Business Connectors, and making at least £20 million available which frontline voluntary organisations will be able to use to choose and pay for high quality support services. It is arguably somewhat hyperbolic to suggest that these measures will lead to ‘the end of infrastructure’ or ‘exacerbate the problem’ of spending cuts in the public sector!

    In response to your specific points:

    1. I don’t agree that frontline and infrastructure are being ‘played off’ against each other. The report clearly notes that in many areas – from support for the underlying principles to sharing learning to key support needs – there was a great deal of consensus between respondents from infrastructure and frontline. In developing this approach, we’ve drawn on learning from working with thousands of frontline organisations. It shouldn’t be any great surprise that some frontline voluntary organisations have had some poor experiences of support from infrastructure, or that they are confident that they know best about the support that they need to flourish, for example.

    2. Our approach is intended to complement that of other funders, local as well as national. As page 8 of the report puts it:

    “Our approach is not an attempt to write a strategy for the whole of the voluntary sector about the single ‘correct’ way to build the skills and confidence of the sector. It is focused on where we think that we can add the most value through our funding, grant holders and relationship with sector. Our approach is intended to complement that of other funders who allocate their resources in different ways.

    For example, a local infrastructure organisation might receive core grant funding from the local authority or other local funders to provide a collective voice on behalf of local voluntary groups, and also offer support services which frontline organisations which receive a grant from the Lottery choose to pay for. A diverse range of funding approaches from different funders is likely to ensure the greatest sustainability of high quality services.”

    We are not arguing for a purist ‘demand-led world’ in which absolutely every support service is paid for by frontline voluntary organisations. We think that there should continue to be a diverse range of sources of funding. BIG has never been the biggest funder of local or national infrastructure and we can’t act as a ‘funder of last resort’ in every area where local or national government has withdrawn funding. Instead, we’ve taken some decisions about where we think our funding can make the greatest difference in order to help fulfil our mission to help communities and people most in need. If BIG is as influential as you believe, local public sector funders will take our advice and provide core funding for work such as collective voice for the voluntary sector!

    3. In terms of peer learning and access to free sources of information, these will be key features of the new BIG Assist initiative, which we are funding and NCVO are delivering on our behalf (more information at http://www.bigassist.org.uk ) Local and specialist infrastructure will be able to use this resource in order to get expert help in order to develop new ways of working, and to share learning and support each other. For example, we know that some local infrastructure organisations have developed excellent links with their local authorities. Through Assist, they will be able to share their knowledge about how to do this effectively with people in other areas where relations are more challenging.

    Assist will also develop an online menu of support services, which will help support providers which offer high quality services to make people aware of these and generate new income.

    We’ll also continue to monitor areas where information might not be sufficiently available. For example, we think that there is a specific need for us to invest around social investment to help voluntary organisations which are interested in social investment develop their investment readiness.

    4. One of the many good things about the Building Capabilities approach is that it will give our Funding Officers and local teams to have new opportunities to work with applicants and grant holders to help them fulfil their potential. We’ll be testing and learning about different approaches and the best ways to do this over the forthcoming months and years.

    5. We’ve based our approach on an analysis of the current capacity of the sector, including the consultation, a series of regional events, biannual surveys of support providers, delivery of BASIS and TLI grants and a wide array of other sources of information. We know, for example, that the situation is very different in different localities, that many support providers have been increasing the income that they generate and that we can’t attempt to meet every single possible need.

    One last comment for now (I eagerly await part two of your series!) We’ll be trying different approaches and making sure that we learn about how these work in order to have the greatest impact. We know that these are tough times for voluntary organisations, but Building Capabilities is part of our efforts to help voluntary organisations to build their skills and confidence, meet challenges and make the most of new opportunities. I hope that you and others will work with us as we develop this work, and continue to help us make sure that far from exacerbating any problems, it creates new opportunities and helps the ultimate beneficiaries – communities and people most in need.

    • Martin Preston

      As Richard’s points out BIG’s paper does make some general assumptions about the range, quality and potential cost of services and support that will be available to frontline organisations in the future.

      BIG also underestimates the power and influence that it has over other stakeholders and in particular other funders of infrastructure. I genuinely believe Dan when he sates ‘Our approach is intended to complement that of other funders, local as well as national’ however my own experience has shown that funders do not always see it the same way. At an event run in the North West over 40% of the Transforming Local Infrastructure Partnerships (TLI) indicated that as a result of being awarded TLI funding they expected their funding from the public sector to be reduced as a direct result. In an environment where funders are seeking ways to drastically cut costs it is no surprise that some will use any excuse to reduce levels of funding and it would not surprise me if BIG’s plans to cease the direct funding of infrastructure will be widely copied by other key funding bodies.

      Dan states that BIG ‘are not arguing for a purist ‘demand-led world’ in which absolutely every support service is paid for by frontline voluntary organisations.’ BIG’s paper however (page 12) says ‘our framework is about moving to a different, more demand-led approach’. If BIG follows this approach then other stakeholders and funders will also follow suit and this will have a major impact on the future of infrastructure support provision.

      BIG’s analysis of only 30 frontline organisations is also of concern as it seems to assume that the ‘free’ services that frontline organisations currently benefit from will continue to be available in the future. The majority of these ‘free services’ are actually provided by local infrastructure who subsidise/prop-up these through other funding arrangements. Frontline organisations will obviously be very supportive of any move which offers them an opportunity to directly purchase additional services themselves. I am not however convinced that they are fully aware of the fact that many of these taken-for-granted ‘free’ services may disappear or only become available at a cost in near future? We need to analyze what will actually remain if the market is opened up and the organisations who are dedicated to meet specific local need start to whither or die. BIG’s plans will lead to a number of large, national suppliers offering to deliver ‘demand-led’ services to local organisations but what will be the legacy? Will they be interested in providing the unsustainable ‘free’ (but essential) services? Will they be interested in assisting with the long-term development of local groups and organisations if there is little or no money available to do so? I personally doubt it!

      Who will also continue to fund support with networking, voice and horizon scanning if BIG is seen to no longer see this as important? What will be the impact on the sector if these key roles/functions disappear?

      No one would ever argue that across the country organisations have equal access to a comprehensive range of high quality support services however in my opinion this situation is set to become much worse over the coming years.

  3. Liz Riley

    An interesting discussion.

    How can infrastructure organisations will develop skills for the a future which will ineviatably be very different. Just think about the changes to the way we work caused by IT developments, broadband and 3G etc and the immense untapped possibiliites for even more new ways of working using them and their successor technologies

    I’m concerned that some support seems to seek to rebuild old ways of supporting hit by cuts, rather than looking to the future and seeking new and innovative solutions.

  4. James Renton


    I was intrigued by your statement that BLF is “not a ‘funder of last resort’ in every area where local or national government has withdrawn funding”.

    You are absolutely right the you are not a ‘funder of last resort’ but you are also partly culpable for the current funding shortage as you also made the decision in the same as local and central government not to maintain former levels of investment available under your previous BASIS scheme to support infrastructure bodies.

    Do not get me wrong BLF went a step further than some agencies by providing transitional cash but at the end of the day BLF made a deliberate strategic decision not to maintain levels of funding just as some local and national government agencies have also done!

  5. Ivor Sutton

    While I feel that many will say it is good advice to ‘avoid party political activity’, I do not necessarily believe it is possible or right to disengage from forming political views and enhancing ones opinion on those views by managing a range of diverse activities in life.

    It does send a shiver down my spine when people say ‘they don’t like politics’ or they don’t have any view on it. Well, it’s part of our lives whether we like it or not. It influences us to be angry, happy or just simply content. So, to say that we don’t have a view on the decision-making that in some way effects our roads, our NHS or how we cycle.. is quite disingenuous.


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