Volunteers can help to plug the £4.6bn funding hole

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations recetly announced the findings of its review of the financial sustainability of the voluntary sector’s finances. The headline findings from the review is that the sector faces a £4.6bn projected shortfall in income by 2018/19.

Michael Birtwistle, senior policy officer at NCVO, said in a blog that the review found that “many organisations have reached, or are approaching a capacity crunch as a result of successive cuts to back office and management capacity. In combination with rising demand, these cuts are now affecting organisations’ ability to engage with even familiar sources of funding, and inhibiting the development of new types of income.”

Yet again we see a key problem in the sector – the apparent belief that the goal is raising income rather than delivering services to fulfil our missions. There are other ways to get things done than just by paying for them with cold hard cash. In fact, if that’s all the sector sees as its available resource, we become no different to the private sector.

Sustainability of the voluntary sector organisations is important, but it isn’t just about money. Other resources are key too, including volunteering.

As American volunteering consultant Tobi Johnson wrote back in April: “In the face of ever-growing community needs and persistent economic strains on non-profits, volunteerism isn’t just a nice thing. It’s a necessary thing. Volunteerism is a strategic choice to use human resources to build capacity, and recent data shows it works. The Points of Light Service Enterprise Initiative research finds that organisations that leverage volunteers across all levels of their enterprise, and manage them effectively, run at nearly half the median budget.”

Half-the median budget. Now don’t read that wrong. That’s not saying senior managers and boards can recruit volunteers so they can lay off staff and run an organisation on half the budget. It’s saying that where volunteers are effectively engaged, financial resources can be released to help the organisation do more, either in direct service or to help address the capacity crunch NCVO’s blog mentioned.

This requires organisations to look at the full mix of resources available, to value them accordingly and to deploy them most effectively in pursuit of the mission.

So, let’s look at some sums to relate volunteering to that £4.6bn projected income shortfall by 2018/19.

  • To perform a commonly used calculation of the financial value of volunteers, let’s assume an hour of a volunteer’s time is valued at the minimum wage of £6.50 an hour.
  • Therefore £4.6bn equates to 707,692,307.69 volunteer hours.
  • 19.2 million people volunteer at least once a year, according to the Community Life survey.
  • So £4.6bn would equate to each of those existing volunteers giving just under 37 hours a year more of their time.

In other words, we could make up the projected £4.6bn resource shortfall if we just got people already volunteering to give 42.5 minutes more a week of their time.

This, of course, is back-of-a-fag-packet stuff, but it illustrates that with a little creative thinking and a broader understanding of the resources we have at our disposal, the sector can step up to the challenges of the future if it is willing to change and adapt. As American basketball coach John Wooden said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be”.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant.

4 Responses to “Volunteers can help to plug the £4.6bn funding hole”

  1. Tobi Johnson

    @Rob So, true. Volunteers are the best kept secret in terms of social sector capacity development. They don’t supplant paid staff, they compliment them… expanding reach into new neighborhoods, breaking down barriers between institutions and communities, adding credibility, and yes, helping dollars stretch farther.

  2. Guy Smith

    No one can argue with the value of volunteers – every charity should make the most of people willing to donate their valuable time.
    But I feel that this article should be taken with a pinch of salt for oversimplifying the issue.
    You don’t just need bodies, you need skills – that volunteers won’t necessarily have – and the whole point of investing your funds in paid employees is that they necessarily bring a much greater return on investment than volunteers – since even volunteers need someone to manage and direct their efforts.

    • Rob J Consulting

      Guy, you are making a common mistake I fear. You are assuming that we’d just take anyone off the street and get them to be a volunteer. Using your words, just bodies.

      No competent, professional Volunteer Manager would do that. You’d make sure the right people with the right skills were selected and deployed into the right roles to make the biggest difference. This is why volunteer investment and value audits generally show a 1:8 ROI on volunteer engagement (including the cost of managing them, which isn’t always done by an employee by the way).

      Why won’t volunteers necessarily have the skills needed? Why are paid staff the only way you can get skills?

      That reasoning is a nonsense. It is insulting to the millions of volunteers who do great work for good causes up and down this country, indeed around the world. It disregards and disrespects the vision, skills and hard work of all those volunteers who founded the very organisation that now employee people to work in our sector.

      Of course I am not advocating that paid staff aren’t needed. If I’d taken that line I’d have said that there are other ways to get things done *other* than by paying for them with cold hard cash.” Paid staff have a key role to play working alongside volunteers as part of a team, at least in those organisations with paid staff – remember, the majority of voluntary sector agencies have no paid staff at all and are entirely volunteer run.

      In fact, if you read my blog post again, you’ll see that I argue that effective deployment of volunteers (done strategically, not as an afterthought) can release money to do other things, to do more, which by implication includes employing people. As I say in the post, “This requires organisations to look at the full mix of resources available, to value them accordingly and to deploy them most effectively in pursuit of the mission.”

      Dismissing volunteers as inherently unskilled as you suggest is demonstrating exactly the problem I am trying to highlight in the way people in the sector seem to think about the resources at their disposal.

      • Guy Smith

        Rob, you haven’t read my reply properly – I don’t ‘dismiss’ volunteers as inherently unskilled – but I do say that ‘they won’t necessarily have the skills you need’.
        My point is that you need the paid staff to manage the volunteers’ time properly and that the point of paid staff is you can ensure you have the skills you need, when you need them.
        To plug a 4.6bn funding gap will take a lot of creative thinking about what we do with the resources we have available – I don’t argue with that – but I still think your closing comments are an oversimplification of the challenges we face.


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