What about volunteers in the State of the Sector?

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.

4 Responses to “What about volunteers in the State of the Sector?”

  1. chris ward


    Harsh – but is it fair….?

    We have only recently launched into the sector with Blue Dot. Since we launched in late October the business is moving at pace and is establishing itself as the new social currency for ‘good’: A ‘rewards point’ scheme that enables businesses to engage, reward & recognise employees, customers & consumers that support any of 9,000 charities in the UK & 100,000 globally. Blue Dots provide access to money-can’t-buy rewards, unique job experiences & recognition on CVs for volunteers.

    We have had a great response and are working with the very top figures at organisations like VE, V, NCVO, BITC, NCS/OCS etc…

    So, we are offering a very web2 / 21st century solution to engage new young people in volunteering and the heads of the organisations are supporting it…

    There are some problems in the individual charities ability to use their data well & provide manpower – but things are moving well….

    So maybe its not the leaders – maybe its that there isn’t enough people going to them with viable solutions?

    • Rob Jackson

      Hi Chris. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I do think my observations are fair. Its great that initiatives like yours are coming along and helping to encourage volunteering and I’m not surprised to see the kids of organisations you list as being supportive at a senior level. They are, however, infrastructure bodies.

      My point is that leaders in volunteer involving organisations need to start putting some much more focus on to and effort into the strategic engagement of volunteers in their agencies. Without such a shift many organisations will struggle and/or fail to engage 21st century volunteers effectively because volunteering will remain low priority, low profile and a Cinderella compared to other forms of supporter engagement.

      New rewards and incentives like Blue Dot are very welcome but we still need inspiring, meaningful and effective opportunities for people to engage in as volunteers. Unless that happens – and sector leaders have a key role to play in making it happen – we risk drawing in a new generation of volunteers with the promise of exciting rewards only for the actual experience of volunteering to be so bad that we risk putting them off for life.

  2. Richard Caulfield

    Can’t let you write a Blog without taking a little issue with you Peter!

    In your first paragraph you refer to ”being more than a cash-machine’ – which infers you may have been in the past. I think this is the straw that breaks the camels back for me: I am fed up of people talking down grant programmes, whether government or lottery, as if they were some hand-out that people did no work for: yes the lottery gave grants and the sector worked bloody hard to deliver against them. I have never seen an organisation just accept a grant as a hand-out: and you used to have lots of people on the ground who monitored these organisations who came to your cash machine – they were much better placed to know things were being done than the way grants are currently managed at a distance.

    if you wanted to overcome a perception of being easy money then the lottery ought to stop any grants where they are clear people are not delivering or they believe things are happening inappropriately – otherwise phrases like ‘handouts’ or ‘cash machines’ are a slur on all your grant recipients and I am confident you didn’t mean that!

    As for the issue around Social Investment – i wouldn’t say it was so much an issue of Government interference i would challenge but the openness of the phrase in the guidance: your interpretation is fine by me – but it might not be down to you to interpret forever!

  3. Sam Broderick

    A word of caution on the collection box front, which I think is a very good idea if managed properly. However, if it’s not, it becomes a one-day thing for the corporate employees, and the charity is then left with lots of ‘orphaned’ boxes in local businesses. Since local business staff have much better things to do with their time than count and bank coppers, this means that either the boxes never get emptied or a member of charity staff has to take time out of their day to go collect, empty and count collection boxes. As someone who’s recently had the back-breaking experience of carrying full collection boxes around the city, I can say that this definitely isn’t much fun, especially when the yield ends up being about £30 per collection box.


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