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.