As we enter 2014, the pace is gathering for next year’s UK general election. The NCVO has already been consulting its members as it seeks to develop some form of sector manifesto aimed at the main parties, and we’re sure to see many others canvassing opinion and positioning the sector in the heart of the political world as polling day approaches.
So what exactly do we all want and what are the likely consequences if we get it? This is where we have to be cautious. In the past, many in the sector argued long and hard for a greater role for civil society organisations in public service delivery. Many of those same voices now complain about payment by results and the contract culture.
Political parties listened and gave the sector what it wanted (well, at least what the vocal end of it wanted) but it was never going to do that on the sector’s terms. Put simply, we got what we wished for and we don’t like it after all.
I was therefore a little alarmed when I saw that some of the so-called sector leaders canvassed for the NCVO Project 2015 initiative have been calling for the next government to give everyone an entitlement to a day off work to take part in volunteering. On the face of it this is a commendable idea but dig a little deeper and there are two fundamental problems that will lead to unintended consequences.
Firstly, many volunteer involving organisations are not set up to engage people in single days of service. Many VIOs still want longterm, dedicated commitments from their volunteers. They simply don’t want people for a day and haven’t really thought about how to chunk up the work volunteers do so someone can come in and perform it on one nine-to-five occasion.
Secondly, many organisations still do not sufficiently resource the engagement and management of volunteers. Volunteering is freely given but not cost free, yet many VIOs have cut this budget as their finances have got tighter and will only invest in it if external funding is available.
So let’s imagine for a moment that the next government listens to those calling for everyone to have the right to a day off to volunteer.
What are we going to give these people to do? How are we going to support them so they have an enjoyable day making a real difference? What leadership and management will be in place? What recognition will they get? Who will be providing a strategy to develop a scale of engagement to try to get them to come back and volunteer more in future?
Without thinking these things through there is a very real risk that all these new volunteers would have a bad experience of volunteering, would have a much greater awareness of VIOs’ unwillingness to invest in good support for volunteers and would very likely walk away committed to never volunteering ever again.
So, as the election campaigning gathers pace let’s start thinking a little more intelligently about what we want the next government to do with regards to volunteering. Perhaps we want them to actually do nothing – to get out of the way. Regardless, let’s think things though better than we seem to be doing.
After all, there is a chance we might get what we ask for.