Walking the talk on volunteering

A few years ago the policy team at Volunteering England developed the slogan ‘Volunteering is freely given, but not cost free’. It was used repeatedly to make the point to government and funders that successful and effective engagement of volunteers comes with a cost attached, albeit a cost that brings about a good return on investment

Last month, Sir Stephen Bubb wrote an article for The Guardian entitled, ‘George Osborne needs to understand that volunteering isn’t free‘, in which he argued that if the voluntary sector is going to have to provide placements under the proposed Help To Work scheme then it needs funding to do so.

I don’t want to look at Sir Stephen’s inaccurate portrayal of this scheme as volunteering (it isn’t freely given) but instead want to commend him for reminding government, in his capacity as the head of the chief executives body Acevo,  that volunteering is not cost free. Good as it is to hear the NCVO beating this drum now they have incorporated Volunteering England, Sir Stephen’s voice joining the chorus is a welcome and hopefully influential development.

What I am now hoping to see is Sir Stephen ensuring that Acevo takes a similar line with its members –  the chief executives of our sector’s volunteer-involving organisations.

My understanding is that during the last few years, organisations have often reduced their financial support for volunteer involvement. Volunteer manager posts have been dispensed with, investment cut for new initiatives and resources funnelled into other areas such as fundraising.

I usually hear from two groups of managers of volunteers through my networks.

The first have experienced these cuts. They have seen it get harder to engage volunteers effectively as a result. They have seen chief executives and senior managers assume that getting volunteers was easy and so did not need support, ignorant of the changing landscape and challenges it creates.

The second group has fought against these cuts with varying degrees of success. They’ve seen investment in volunteer programmes maintained and, in a minority of cases, grown. They’ve seen new approaches piloted that helped to successfully engage the new breed of volunteers we’re seeing in growing numbers. It always seemed to be a battle, though, and sometimes the extra funding was externally sourced (and so time limited) rather than drawn from the organisation’s own funds – a scenario that tells its own story about the importance their chief executive’s place on volunteering.

So, welcome as Sir Stephen’s voice to government is, I want to see this same call being made to Acevo’s members. I want to see them being challenged by their membership body to  invest properly in volunteering if they want to see volunteers effectively involved in fulfilling their missions. I want to see chief executives challenged to go beyond warm, fuzzy words about volunteers and put their money where their mouth is.

It is time that the call of “Volunteering is freely given, but not cost free” is heard and acted upon not just by government, but by the very organisations that rely so much on volunteer effort. It’s time Acevo, Sir Stephen and our chief executives walk the talk as well as challenging others too.