“The simple things you see are all complicated”…

…So sang Roger Daltrey, and while he wasn’t thinking of volunteering, he may as well have been. For while volunteering often seems simple (especially to those with little understanding of the topic), further examination reveals multiple layers of complexity. This is perhaps nowhere more clear than in the thorny issue of job substitution.

Guidance issued last year by Volunteering England (now part of the NCVO), in partnership with NAVCA and Locality, called on organisations to ensure volunteers ‘complement and supplement’ paid staff, lest volunteering be seen to undermine paid staff jobs.


•            The number of people employed by the voluntary sector is increasing, albeit there has been a trend towards more part-time roles. So are volunteers really taking people’s jobs away? It doesn’t look like it.

•            Evidence from some services where volunteers now play a bigger role in delivery than before the cuts suggests that the service provided is better suited to client needs. New Cross People’s Library, for example, is now open at lunchtimes when people want to use it, not just at the times the paid staff wanted to work.

•            The vast majority of civil society organisations are still staffed entirely by volunteers. No complementing or supplementing here – volunteers are essential to the work of these organisations that make up the bulk of the sector.

Those of you interested in a fuller analysis of the issues surrounding job substitution – or job displacement/replacement as it is more helpfully referred to by those seeking to address the complex subject intelligently – can read my own blog on the topic from last year.

For now I want to reflect on this issue on the context of Volunteers’ Week here in the UK.

With the new slogan of “Time To Say Thank You”, Volunteers’ Week is an important opportunity to thank volunteers for all they do for our organisations and for the wider society. But recognition isn’t just saying thank you, it also carries the meaning of recognising something as important or valid.

When we subjugate volunteering to something that merely ‘complements and supplements’ paid staff we fail to recognise its importance. We fail to recognise how vital volunteers truly are, how without them there would not be paid jobs in the majority of sector organisations, how without volunteers people would literally die.

So this Volunteers’ Week let’s celebrate the unique and distinctive value of volunteers. Let’s afford them the respect they deserve rather than fearing that they are out there to take paid jobs from people.

To that end I will conclude with this accurate observation by the Australian authors of the excellent Volunteer Management – An Essential Guide:

“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.” – Noble, Rogers and Fryar (2003)

Happy Volunteers’ Week.

10 Responses to ““The simple things you see are all complicated”…”

  1. John Clarke

    I fully understand and echo your concern that the stories of volunteers and volunteer-driven work are not being told.

    However, I can also see the reason behind this.

    The UK charity sector is obsessed with fundraising and money. All opportunities to talk about and publicise what we do become dominated by the fundraisers’ agenda. While I won’t go into detail here, it’s a theme I visit extensively in my other comments and own blogs.

    There has been one notable exception to this recently, with the story and efforts of the Olympic volunteers being widely covered and celebrated. Although it does concern me that this seems to be running into a situation where Games Makers are being hailed and mentioned at the expense of all other volunteers.

    The few high-profile organisations who can influence the news agenda must understand that “it’s not always about fundraising”, and that the charity sector should use its few moments in the spotlight to share a multitude of great stories and acts.

    • Rob Jackson

      Couldn’t have put it any better myself John, well said.

      This is a frequent topic of my own posts for Third Sector online and it is nice to see some of my fellow bloggers coming round to a way of thinking that recognises the value and potential of volunteering.

    • Violet

      Not every charity/non-governmental organization has volunteers. Many assume they do. Charities that provide safe fulfilling volunteering experiences that are valued by their community and are well managed need to fundraise, as contrary to what a lot of people think, you can’t provide this properly on the cheap. Services provided through trained, supported and supervised volunteers enrich their community and provide a safe service when it’s done to a high standard but there is a cost that has to be fundraiser for.

      • Rob Jackson

        Correct Violet. Not every charity does have volunteers. But the vast majority do and the overwhelming majority have volunteers and NO paid staff. Something debate about ‘the sector’ frequently fails to overlook.

        You are also quite right, good volunteer engagement comes at a cost. Freely given but not cost free is a good description of volunteering engagement.

        However, like John I have never argued that fundraising is not important or needed. The issue is that when people talk of giving they only mean giving money, as if that’s the only resource organisations need.

        You may find my current blog for Third Sector online helpful as it not only outlines my views but shows how good volunteer involvement might make fundraising even more effective. You can find my blog at http://robjackson.thirdsector.co.uk/2013/03/01/time-for-a-change/

  2. Grant Hayward

    What a really interesting article and thread of discussion!

    I work to encourage and support businesses to engage with charities and community groups for mutual benefit (Rob, you may remember me from the MVNSS project at VE). This includes but is not limited to employee volunteering.

    One of the greatest challenges I face is small charities and groups who either do not feel they can manage the volunteers, or do not see the longer-term benefits. However, telling more stories is most definitely a way to overcome this. Most importantly, because successful volunteering experiences often lead to other forms of support – including fundraising. So often, volunteers spend a little time inside charities and groups and are wowed by their work. They then go off as fantastic advocates.

    Just two examples…..
    At an event held during Trustee Week at the end of last year, I heard from a very small charity that decided to take on its first employee. It needed someone to draw up a contract, which was taken up by an employee from a local company. The job was done, the employee enjoyed the work, loved the organisation and asked if they needed any further help. After meeting the board, she is now a trustee.

    Working with a very large company to find an appropriate volunteering opportunity, I came across a charity where an employee was keen, but a manager was reluctant. Sitting down with members of both organisations, I was able to facilitate a range of activities which brought out the skills of the employees and, most importantly, solve a number of day to day issues at the charity. After a fantastic day that really did make a difference and was not your typical “team building” employee volunteering, a number of staff were so taken by the charity that they were offering to jump out of aeroplanes to raise funds for them!

    It is difficult for small charities and groups in particular, and they do need help and support – which is out there from a range of places, including experts within Volunteer Centres. But sharing stories like these should help to inspire more organisations to embrace and encourage volunteers.

  3. Wally Harbert

    A breath of fresh air. Well done Rob. This particular windmill has been tilted so many times that its sales are in perpetual; motion.

  4. Oliver Benson

    There’s a lot I’d agree with what you say here, that volunteers do provide something that paid employees can’t, but I’d think the former paid librarians at New Cross library would probably take issue with your assertion that the new venture using volunteers was not job substitution. And I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that the library shut at lunch simply because of the whims of the staff.
    As this recent Suzanne Moore (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/05/digital-economy-work-for-free) column suggests,”what is being eroded is not only actual wages but also the very idea that work must be paid for”

  5. Sue Hine

    “Recognition isn’t just saying thank you, it also carries the meaning of recognising something as important or valid”.
    Thanks for pointing this out. Trouble is I think we fall short in demonstrating the importance and validity, and the uniqueness of volunteering. We need to get past the platitudes of appreciation. Right now it’s National Volunteer Week in New Zealand and while there is plenty of media activity and functions planned throughout the week the ultimate impact remains to be evaluated.


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