On 13 February The Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Network published an article entitled “Celebrity supporters are more than just volunteers – they’re donors”.
The article, written by an unnamed ‘charity celebrity consultant’, argues that “to suggest a celebrity is simply a volunteer is to misunderstand celebrity support…this undervalues their worth”. The authors continues: “If a solicitor offers to spend a weekend helping a charity clear a canal, then I’d consider them to be a volunteer. However, if that same solicitor gave the same amount of time to do legal work on behalf of the charity, then they have donated not just their time but their specialist expertise to provide a service that has a clear commercial value. Therefore I’d argue that in this example our solicitor is a donor in-kind”.
I’ve come across this attitude towards volunteers all too often. It suggests volunteers do the menial work, the things that have no real significance while “donors in-kind” get on and do the important stuff. Paid staff in the sector often feel comfortable recognising tin rattlers as volunteers but would rarely apply the v-word to other activities which are more comfortably labelled as donor in-kind or pro bono.
This kind of attitude reveals a massively low opinion of volunteers. It is nothing short of institutional marginalisation of the biggest workforce in the sector. It reveals an elitism and snobbery that many would argue doesn’t exist in our values driven sector.
It is also hugely offensive to the millions of people who volunteer their time every year to undertake a huge array of tasks, many unlinked to their careers (if indeed they have careers). Consider these volunteer roles, essential to society yet largely performed by people who have unrelated day jobs:
- Lifeboat crews
- Mountain rescue teams
- School governors
Are they ‘just’ volunteers? Of course not.
Whether explicit or implied, the view of volunteers as sub-standard workers within the sector is perhaps at the root of many of the challenges the sector faces around volunteering. If volunteers are viewed in such a poor light is it any surprise that:
- Organisations struggle to recruit volunteers?
- Organisations fail to hang on to volunteers when they do get them through the door?
- Organisations treat their existing volunteers badly, dismissing them with a deplorable lack of respect?
Would you want to give your valuable spare time to an organisation that views you as just or simply a volunteer? Would you want to be treated as a second class citizen when spending your time volunteering?
So what can we do to change this attitude?
First of all we need to recognise the little signs of its presence, such as talk of ‘using’ volunteers. We need to challenge these, reminding people of the important contribution volunteers make.
Second, we need to measure the contribution of volunteers to our organisations. Don’t fall into the trap of saying “volunteers are worth £xxx to our organisation”, because that is not a measure of value but a way of costing their input and is fraught with problems. Instead, look at the way volunteers change the lives of your clients, the impact they have, the difference they make whether directly or indirectly (e.g. through fundraising or raising awareness of your cause).
Finally, organisations should invest in good quality leadership and management for their volunteer programmes. Instead of the volunteering department being the first thing to be cut in tough times, give some more considered thought to what value is lost if the ability to effectively engage all kings of voluntary support is reduced. What message does it send to volunteers if the department that ensures they have a fulfilling experience is the first thing to go when the belts get tightened?
It is high time we stop talking about people who give their time as ‘just volunteers’ and recognise that they are perhaps the sector’s most valuable – and under-valued – resource.