Could more reliance on volunteers be just what the sector needs?

OK, I’m potentially going to be controversial this month.

I’ve just read a new paper from the Third Sector Research Centre paper No Longer A Voluntary Sector.  The paper is part of their Future Dialogues series and explores the changing landscape of the sector workforce and asks whether increased reliance on volunteers – as Big Society policy suggests should happen – is desirable or viable.


I will set aside my frustration at reading that “where Third Sector Organisations’ clients have highly complex needs, it is problematic to assume that these services could be run either by volunteers alone or without considerable training or support”.  Because as we know, all volunteers are inherently incapable of doing anything meaningful unless they have been trained first because volunteers have no skills, abilities or experience in life – personally or professionally – prior to the point at which they donate their time.

No, instead I want to focus on something in the report that, to these eyes, have a provocative implication.

Towards the start of the paper, TSRC makes the point that levels of volunteering have plateaued since the start of this century while paid staff numbers in the sector have grown some 40 per cent over the same period – an expansion supported in large part by more public sector funding for organisations under the last Labour government.

Towards the end of the paper, it suggests that, in parallel to this change in the sector’s workforce,  the “resistive potential” of the sector and its “campaigning and advocacy role” have not been very prominent at a time when they should arguably have increased as social inequality and economic difficulties have grown. This, it suggests, provides opportunities for the role TSOs play to be “re-imagined” and their roles “acted out in new ways” to challenge some of the structures “they have been confined to operate within”.

To me this says that, as some parts of the sector have grown in paid staff posts funded from the public purse, so they have become less willing to speak up for the vulnerable people they serve for fear of loss of that money they have come to rely upon. Now, with cuts looming large, organisations are turning to volunteers to fill the gaps. Whether this is for sensible or misguided reasons (e.g. volunteers are free), this presents an opportunity to restore the sector’s “resistive potential”. Why? Because these same volunteers have more freedom to speak up for the vulnerable people they serve because they have no salary they fear to lose.

So rather than whining about volunteers taking paid jobs (an assertion never backed up by any meaningful evidence on a sector-wide scale), we perhaps need to see a growth in reliance on volunteers as something leading to more effective protection of the vulnerable people TSOs serve. Why? Because it is being done more and more by volunteers, people who spend little time working to protect their ‘jobs’ before they actually get on and do them.


8 Responses to “Could more reliance on volunteers be just what the sector needs?”

  1. peter hepburn

    Discuss? No discussion needed. Spot on. Staff and volunteers don’t have different skills-sets. They are all people with the whole mix of skills that people have and bring to the sector.

    If people are matched to the task in hand, and trained and supported well, they can do a good job, whether they are staff or volunteers. If they see injustice they are all well able to fight for the most vulnerable in society. The sector needs as much resource as it can get to tackle this huge task and we need to be open to all that people can offer to help our work.

  2. Wally Harbert

    Exactly right, Instead of tearing ourselves apart about whether trustees should be paid, it would be better to spend time considering how we can restore the spirit of charity,

  3. Chris Hornet

    Paid staff have mortgages to pay, groceries to buy, families to provide for. It is only natural that as individuals we (either consciously or self-consciously) are more cautions about what we say and how we act. That is where the real value of volunteers come in and we’ve seen time and time again that it is volunteers people feel most comfortable with and will confide in.

    The problem is whether organisations are prepared to allow volunteers to be these ‘protectors’, to allow them to speak and go ‘off message’. Organisations have got better at giving volunteers opportunties that are more skilled and more responsible but as a sector we still have a line where the thought is ‘only paid staff can do that’.

  4. Heather Buckingham

    Thank you for these comments, Rob; and, as it happens, I agree with much of what you say. You are right to point out that volunteers may in practice have much the same skills as paid employees, at least in the sense that, once someone has acquired a set of skills (or experiences, etc.), they can make a choice to use these in a voluntary rather than a paid capacity (or vice versa). However, one thing that the paper highlights is that this choice is likely to be constrained, for instance by people’s financial and family circumstances, and as a result there may be considerable variation between communities in terms of the extent and nature of volunteering. Also, regardless of volunteers’ skills and experience, there are perhaps differences in the demands and guarantees that organisations can make of, or expect from, volunteers compared with paid staff, which may have implications for service provision.

    It is perhaps worth pointing out too that the discussion paper – which incidentally has a question mark at the end of its title (although this seems to have dropped off somewhere along the way) – is intended as just that: a presentation of different research findings in order to provoke debate. So just to clarify, for instance, the view referred to above about how volunteers cannot be expected to deal with complex client needs is one that has been expressed in interviews by some of the TSOs we’ve been researching. This is not a position that TSRC is endorsing, or claiming is entirely representative.

    It is is really interesting to hear your thoughts on this, however; and I agree that the current context of budget cuts may offer an opportunity for volunteers (and perhaps paid third sector staff too?) to work increasingly ‘outside of the state’, in a way that could be less encumbered by the constraints associated with state funding. Perhaps this might also lead to more radical, value-driven voluntary action, and that is a research question which we are keen to explore. However, this raises further questions about what this kind of action might look like, who will be doing it, where will they be doing it, and why – any thoughts anyone?

  5. Danielle Trudeau

    Thanks for this! I too am amazed at the lack of global thinking being the norm and any conversations to encourage otherwise die quickly through not communicating! We are moving towards the understanding that together is better and not just a slogan, however, there is a way to go. Keep up the good fight.

  6. Gethyn Williams

    Other countries and industries are better at this than us. Techy folk seem much more attuned to international collaboration, but then they have a business model that can finance it.

    I took part in an international civil society skills exchange in Japan a couple of years ago – it’s annual and administered through NCVO. The striking thing was how common this is for Japanese civil society, and indeed many Asian countries. They have international conferences several times a year. The learning – how other countries do civil society – has been invaluable for me.

    And finally, I was really taken with Movember this year, who through the scale of their fundraising efforts globally are now powerful enough to dictate terms to cancer researchers across the globe – effectively forcing them to collaborate.

    I saw some comment somewhere this week about the VCS being ‘individually strong, but collectively weak’. Your London points echo that. London provides an opportunity for centralising VCS power and influence.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>