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.

7 Responses to “Walking the talk on volunteering”

  1. Janet Thorne

    Absolutely spot on Rob. Volunteers are central to the
    functioning of so many charities – yet in some cases they are treated by those
    same organisations as an awkward adjunct rather than an essential, valuable resource. Chief executives and senior management must create
    an organisational culture that cherishes the time and skills donated by
    volunteers by investing thought and time in defining volunteer roles well,
    recruiting in the right people and managing them effectively. The charity will
    then reap benefits far in excess of the time they have invested, and also, they
    will be demonstrating proper respect for people who are willing to commit their
    time, energy and expertise to their cause for no financial reward.

  2. Wally Harbert

    You make some very telling points Rob. This is well up to your usual standard. You deserve a wider audience.

    ACEVO ranks among the most effective third sector organisations ever. It is very influential, punching above its weight and gets more sound bytes per member than any other organisation in the sector.

    It has fought to extend opportunities for the sector to run public services and therefore finds it difficult to represent the needs of charities that run advocacy services or that struggle to empower volunteers and their local communities.

    I do not entirely blame ACEVO for getting into bed
    with the government. This opened opportunities for more funding and brought greater rewards for chief executives. But, of course, the interests of the sector and those if its chief executives are not the same.

    ACEVO represents only a tiny – and diminishing – proportion of chief executives. If it were accountable to a broad membership that paid its own subscriptions it would not have squandered money on a birthday party for its chief executive and would have addressed the issues you raise.

  3. Eowyn Rohan

    I am not sure whether a credible Third Sector exists…any business which relies on volunteers for a proportion of its staff, but which devotes its salary budget to servicing the lifestyle of a declining number of Board Members and Senior Managers, is simply a business.

    Unfortunately, if any business gets into bed with Government, is party to something as insidious as the Work Programme (or any unemployment scheme), and thereby compromises its intergrity, they only have themselves to blame if they find their contingent of staff is restricted to the criminal class (who have been sentenced to Community Service) and the demonised benefit claimant.

    Far better that, if a Third Sector Business wishes to recruit legitimate volunteers, they either make their own way, independent of Government, or simply give up…. unfortunately, the cost to the State is quite excessive, and the State cannot indulge or tolerate any business which, on the one hand, recruits someone (without paying their fair share of salary, tax, national insurance), but on the other, must continue to support a benefit claimant through providing Job Seekers Allowance (for example).

  4. dieseltaylor

    I am pleased to find a discussion like this. I am at the moment deeply disenchanted with a particular charity where the CEO and four of the top positions have seen a roughly £0.5M increase in salaries since 2007.

    Getting over my disgust and looking at the governance side of the the charity, and I suspect this is true of others, there is no mechanism for members to influence or even talk about remuneration.

    It seems to me that what is required for all volunteers/charity members is a bulletin board system where every charity can be talked about. Preferably with a private forum for actual members where more sensitive matters could be discussed.

    I see one charity has introduced perfomance bonuses for staff where reaching “stretching” targets means 100% of salary bonuses. Which has lead me to the point of wondering if not only the top man but everyone on say £100k plus has their full contract details revealed.

    As a sometime volunteer for several charities over the decades to find Trustees blithely spending funds on senior staff feels me with despair and anger.

    • patricklt

      You touch on a very interesting point, namely what is it that ‘makes’ a charity: as far as the Charities Commission is concerned, it largely comes down to their understanding of ‘public benefit’ and whether the purpose of the organisation is wholly ‘charitable’, in the sense of meeting their own definitions drawn from the Charities Act. Insufficient priority, in my opinion, seems to be given to the way the organisation is constituted and is
      answerable to its staff, its volunteers (if it has any) and those for whose
      benefit it exists. To put it another way, should charities be required to adhere to some new form of code of conduct or practice in terms of their governance? Not those required separately by Company law (and for the new CIO’s) but something far more fundamental that separates and defines the difference between ordinary, non-charitable businesses and those charities that include a business function in furtherance of their charitable aims.

      To use, by way of example, what I also agree was the inappropriate use of charitable monies by the trustees of a small but important charity, to subsidise a birthday party for their Chief Executive, it should be
      noted that many organisations – charities and those that are not – may decide to use internal funds for similar practices. The ‘leaving present’ for a long-standing and valued member of staff is one example. Yet this bears further examination: in most instances this will be something unique but of no significant expense. One charity I worked for was in the habit of giving a small, but beautiful piece of engraved glassware (which the recipient would always value but had no especial cost) while colleagues were also free to contribute to a present. This followed a carefully considered (and transparent) policy agreed by the trustees and understood by all staff.

      Yet other charities, operating as quasi-businesses or not, seem to decide with impunity (and charity law allows this) that it is their unquestionable right to approve large pay increases for senior staff without any constraint. Methinks that if you want to be a charity, with the benefits that accrue, that there should be additional requirements imposed in terms of governance and operation rather than solely meeting a sometimes questionable definition of ‘charitable purpose’.

      • Patrick Taylor

        Thanks for the post. Interesting. It makes me more convinced that in the charity sector there are some greedy staff and weak or collusive trustees. I suspect a tiny minority but as we all know on bad apple can spoil the charity barrel.

        Also there is something terrible about how the term charities can mean so many things and perhaps the lay people might usefully be introduced for a commonsense game of defining various types of charity. Relief of suffering vs Royal Opera, Halo vs NT etc . The Charity Commission I think needs to grasp the nettle.

  5. Guest

    I like this Rob and agree but I also feel very passionately that it’s down to Volunteer Managers to make the difference and if funds are being redirected and volunteer programmes reduced, then I think as a profession we also need to ask ourselves why? Fundraising teams aren’t always just given the money, in fact in my experience they have to fight equally hard for it. Could it be that they are just better at influencing than we are, because it’s what they are used to and what they do? The same with Manager pay rises. In most cases (and I accept there are exceptions) maybe they just made a blooming
    good case to the Board about why they are indispensable.

    Fortunately I’ve had the experience of working with organisations that have
    strategically invested in volunteering and volunteer management but this hasn’tjust happened. It’s happened because I’ve worked extremely hard to shape and influence the decisions made by Boards and SMT. I’ve aligned volunteering strategies with business aims, continually promoted the benefits of effective investment, demonstrated the impact volunteering makes, targeted, developed and nurtured relationships the right people and not giving up when the going gets tough, even when its very tough!

    Over the past 11 years I’ve heard ‘I just don’t have time’ in relation to strategically developing volunteering so many times. I know it can be hard, I’ve been there many a time but I think if you want to make time to be strategic, shape and influence, then you will.

    I don’t mean to be negative about volunteer management. I love this profession and there are some incredibly tallented, strategic and sucessfull volunteer managers out there. I just think we need to be a bit more strategically minded and up our game where we can.


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