Be careful what you wish for

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.

11 Responses to “Be careful what you wish for”

  1. Mark Atkinson

    Surely the first question has to be “what is the common goal for volunteering?”….closely followed by “what do we need to change in order to achieve this goal?”. I’m pretty confident that a small working party with the appropriate knowledge, experience and intuition could address these questions and offer up a raw solution for validation by the wider sector. (PS…thanks for the insightful post Rob!)

    • Rob Jackson

      My pleasure Mark.

      I’m not sure we can come up with a common goal for volunteering given the diversity that is inherent within volunteerism. I think NCVO are trying their best but it’s always tricky to develop a coherent position on behalf of a large, diverse and not always easy to define sector.

  2. Michael Ambjorn

    Well said Rob: ‘Volunteering is freely given but not cost free’.

    I look forward to the impact assessments of the the raft of investments the UK government has made in volunteer management platforms through the Innovation in Giving Fund as per etc. Do you know if there’s a schedule for that?

    That should bring up some interesting insights / lessons learnt around new approaches (and the challenges therein).

    This, of course, is only one angle of what you are calling for to be thought through… So indeed, your call is timely.

    • Rob Jackson

      I’m not aware of any impact assessments Michael. I don’t recall many in the past for flagship programmes, probably because they usually have little actual impact.

  3. Gillian Douglass

    I worked with an organisation in the States who gave employees a day off every year to volunteer for local projects. It worked well. Employees were paid by the company, the company gained positive p.r. in the local community and the community benefited. It did, of course, need organisation and a p.r. company was involved in finding a suitable project.

    • Rob Jackson

      Hi Gillian. I think day off to volunteer programmes can be great. My concern is that some here in the UK seem to be calling for them without thinking through the likely implications.

      • Gillian Douglass

        Yes, I think it can only be done on a voluntary basis. To mandate community giving or any kind of giving is ridiculous and impractical.

  4. Hayley Peters

    I struggle to see how paid time off is volunteering – I have always found that these types of volunteers are very difficult to engage in longer term commitment and that it often costs the organisation more in time and funds than they get back.

    I believe that volunteering needs to be promoted more by the government. Team London and the work of the Mayor in volunteering has been fantastic for London, and the charity I work for has benefited hugely. This needs to be national, with enough funds behind it for advertising etc.

  5. Linz Darlington

    Rob – your post is spot on.

    Charities are too busy delivering the services (that in many cases they are already under-resourced to deliver) to have the capacity to find, enlist and apply one-off volunteers.

    That said, with the right application, professional people do come with a rich resource of soft and hard skills which – with the right management – lend themselves to be applied to the benefit of the service users and regular volunteers.

    For example: the benefit can be in providing direct skills (e.g. employment guidance) and sometimes merely having a ‘new face’ provides variety, moral support and reduces isolation.

    Initially the exam questions here is 1) what can be done at scale to identify and structure opportunities to benefit from this support and 2) how do we reduce the burden for the charities, to ensure the benefit of the involvement of these volunteers far outweighs the cost.

    If we answered that we could look forward to engaging a greater number of corporate firms in volunteering, and engaging a greater proportion of the work-forces of those that already offer it.


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