Let’s postpone the national debate and start a little closer to home

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO, recently called for a national debate about volunteering in public services, suggesting that at a time when our health and social care services are under great pressure, volunteering, both formal and informal, could be part of the solution. He said he doesn’t “…believe in putting limits on what volunteers can do, especially not based on ideological arguments about the role of the State…”

This received generally positive views across the sector, but at TimeBank we believe that the voluntary sector needs to address some rather more pragmatic issues that are closer to home before we embark on another national debate.

As a national volunteering charity we champion the role of volunteers – our own volunteers deliver some amazing projects. But when we look around, there is often too much lazy thinking around the engagement and deployment of volunteers. Dozens of “innovative and exciting” national volunteering initiatives and programmes have started over the last decade only to wind up after little or no interest. Many assumed that volunteers could be  the magic solution to many of society’s ills (with little or no evidence as to how they might be), and more tellingly that volunteers would want to participate. So how do we know that volunteers (or those yet to volunteer) want to be part of the solution to the challenges facing public services?

So our first suggestion would be to start by putting the volunteers first and listening to them rather than identifying a problem or challenge and saying “…let’s work out how volunteers can sort this out…”

Sir Stuart might not believe in the limits to what volunteers can and want to do, but our experience of delivering cutting-edge volunteering opportunities for the last 15 years, shows that our volunteers certainly do. If it looks and feels like they are being asked to do an unsuitable role – in public services or anywhere else - volunteers will vote with their feet. The freedom to choose to volunteer also carries with it the right not to. I was immediately reminded of a speech that Boris Johnson gave at a volunteering launch some years ago. The gist of it was that he had been invited to spend the day volunteering on a family farm. He arrived motivated and excited only to be handed a fork and told to spend the day mucking out the pig shed. He claimed he never volunteered again.

Furthermore, we can’t shy away from the impact on paid staff. While we are only too happy to say that volunteers should complement and supplement their work we need tried and tested mechanisms to ensure that volunteers are not used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service.

At TimeBank we feel strongly that volunteers should complement not replace paid staff but that they can be of immense help in areas where they can add value. Our volunteer mentors have supported young people moving from children’s to adult mental health services, for example. And we are now planning a new project which will provide mentoring support to young people with life-limiting or life-threatening illness, to help them make a successful transition from children’s hospices to greater independence and into adult care. This will be an extraordinarily challenging volunteering opportunity where young mentors will add support in a way that paid workers simply don’t have the capacity to do.

The voluntary sector also needs to examine its own approach to volunteering. This can be most evident in the commissioning process where voluntary sector organisations promote the added value of volunteers when in reality it can be little more than a poorly concealed attempt to reduce costs of delivery.

Perhaps most importantly, we would be concerned about those jobs, services or activities that the State has a statutory (or even moral) duty to provide. What protection is afforded to volunteers who do not enjoy the same protections under employment law as workers? Who will clarify and codify how, or even if, an employer and the volunteer can be held to account if the actions of volunteers in delivering  statutory services cause financial loss, inconvenience, pain or damage to reputation?

So please don't look at volunteers as the universal solution to all society’s problems. If your starting point is to identify the jobs no one else wants to do, as roles you can fob off on volunteers, they will simply ignore them. As part of your business planning cycle think strategically about why and where you want to involve volunteers. Then spend as much time considering operationally how volunteers are supported to deliver this. Create an infrastructure in which good volunteering can be supported and managed and create exciting, impactful opportunities. Then the volunteers will come.