Last month saw the publication of the findings from the latest State of the Sector survey. Conducted by Third Sector and nfpSynergy, the findings set out the views of more than 700 people, 58 per cent of whom were senior managers and 7 per cent trustees.
The findings are in many ways unsurprising.
There is little enthusiasm for the government or for the big society, and there are high levels of uncertainty around whether a range of policy areas will make any impact on charities.
Demand for services is increasing, funding is decreasing and numbers of paid staff are declining.
The main challenges faced are creating a sustainable funding base (69 per cent), growing voluntary income (51 per cent) and “communicating the importance of our work” (47 per cent).
Sadly, the survey tells us little about volunteering. The one mention it gets comes in respect of the challenges facing organisations, with just 8 per cent saying finding and keeping volunteers was a challenge for them.
Why is this? Is it because voluntary sector organisations the length and breadth of the country are swamped with so many people wanting to give their time that they are having to beat them off with a stick? Is it because when they get volunteers they never leave? Is it because volunteer management is so well supported and resourced that securing donated time is a breeze?
That’s not my experience. I see organisations saying they ‘desperately need volunteers’ almost every day.
I hear from organisations struggling to attract people into volunteering who want shorter term, more flexible opportunities; organisations who struggle to keep the volunteers they have; and organisations whose reliable older volunteers are leaving due to ill health, age and, sadly, death without any strategy in place to replace them.
I hear from volunteer managers who see so much potential for volunteers to contribute but whose budgets are the first to get slashed, often so fundraising colleagues can have more resource available to them.
If fewer than a tenth of voluntary sector organisations are finding it a challenge to attract and keep volunteers, why are volunteer centres facing ever rising demand for their services? Why are courses and conferences on volunteer management sell-out events?
Sadly, what the State of the Sector survey shows is widespread ignorance about volunteering from sector leaders – the trustees and senior managers who made up 65 per cent of respondents.
The survey suggests that these leaders are out of touch with the reality facing their organisations and with their staff who want to engage volunteers but struggle to do so, perhaps because all the resources go towards squeezing more money out of a public that has less of it to give away.
In his excellent comment piece for Third Sector, Craig Dearden-Phillips argued that the sector needs “a changing of the guard – new mindsets and real energy for what needs to be done next.” Craig rightly observed that “We have this rather smug tendency to think we have the answers, many of which involve large dollops of ‘investment’. But we are often fighting the last war. Indeed, most charities’ staff, services and programmes still reflect the relatively benign conditions of the past decade – not the long, hard road ahead.”
In volunteering terms the message of the State of the Sector survey is clear:
Our leaders need to stop ignoring volunteering.
Our leaders need to stop endlessly pursuing funding as the only solution to the sector’s woes.
Our leaders need to start waking up to the potential 21st century volunteers can bring to our good causes.
Our leaders need to start resourcing volunteer engagement better.
And if they don’t, then we need new leaders who are fit to guide us through the troubled waters ahead in a far more creative way than those we currently have seem capable of doing.