Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Three reasons why it’s time to stop talking about amateurs and professionals

For many years I’ve heard and read variations on the same theme: Volunteers are just well meaning amateurs. If you want something done properly then it needs to be handed over to a professional.

It’s a position used as a justification for not giving volunteers meaningful things to do. They’re amateurs, they’d just mess it up.

It’s an argument used to combat fears of job displacement. How many times have we read in recent years that library services will suffer if volunteers are left do the work of professional librarians?

It’s a way of thinking that perpetuates a division in Volunteer Involving Organisations, between the paid staff - who are seen as essential - and the volunteers - who are seen as a nice to have optional extra, a bit like metallic paint on a new car.

We need to stop this thinking now more than ever. Any time we encounter such views we need to start actively challenging them.

I want to share three reasons why.

The first relates to definitions.

Whilst it is true that the word amateur can be used to denote competence, its primary definition is one that refers to an activity undertaken without pay. Professional on the other hand suggests either that someone belongs to a specific profession (a doctor, lawyer or teacher for example) or is being paid for the work they do.

So, whilst some may suggest volunteers are incompetent by calling them amateurs, the labelling of paid staff as professionals carries with it no assumption of competence.

It is one of the biggest myths I encounter in my work that if someone is paid they become more competent. Similarly that the more someone is paid the more competent they must be.

I have worked with highly competent volunteers as well as incompetent ones. I have worked with highly incompetent paid staff as well as competent ones. I bet you have too. Never did someone's level of remuneration effect how good they were at the job.

Second, labelling volunteers as well meaning amateurs, and therefore implying they are incompetent, is just lazy thinking that dodges the need to consider properly how we effectively engage people in our organisations.

Let’s go back to the library example I mentioned above. At no point does anyone who has criticised the idea of volunteer run libraries ever appeared to stop and considered that perhaps there might be very well training, highly competent professional librarians who might want to volunteer to help run these libraries. Perhaps they are retired and want to get involved in their field again? Perhaps they are non-practicing librarians but want time away from their non-library day jobs? Perhaps they are unemployed and/ or returning to work and want to get up-to-speed again?

Nope, straight away the assumption is that we’ll just take anyone we can find and throw them in at the deep end to run a library. If we did that then of course professional librarians would be a better option, but would any competent Volunteer Manager ever do such a thing? No! We spend time finding the right people, selecting them carefully for the right roles, training them up and supporting them to do the best work possible.

Finally, the issues we face in society are simply too big for any one pay category to deal with. No Voluntary and Community Sector organisation is ever going to have all the money to pay people to do all the work that needs doing. That’s truer now then ever. A team effort is needed, one where paid and unpaid ‘staff’ are engaged and deployed most effectively to work together to achieve an organisation’s mission.

We can no longer afford to waste energy discrediting volunteers as well meaning but incompetent amateurs whilst automatically assuming paid staff are always competent and the solution to everything. Instead we need to embrace the passion & potential of volunteers and employees, amateurs and professionals, and harness that for the good causes we serve.

Anything less is at best wasteful, and at worst negligent, behaviour in the stewardship of our resources when so many are in need of our support.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Volunteer rights and the scope of the Charity Commission

For this posting we are really happy to welcome visiting blogger and our former colleague at Volunteering England, Mike Locke, who shares with us his views on the ongoing issue of volunteer rights following a recent report from the Charity Commission (England & Wales).


The Charity Commission has recently made clear its position on allegations of unfair treatment of volunteers.  Its Operational Case Report regarding St John Ambulance saw the issue as a matter of the charity’s administration, such that the Charity Commission would only get involved if governance procedures had not been followed or if the case threatened to bring the charity into disrepute.

This may not grab the headlines, but it’s helpful because during the long-running attempts to resolve volunteer rights there has been a question why complaints made by volunteers to the Charity Commission have been regarded as outside its scope.

The actual case here concerning, in its full name, The Priory of England and The Islands of the Order of St John was that the charity adopted a regional structure on grounds of finance, quality and impact, and consistency. However, according to a “senior volunteer” in the Telegraph newspaper in 2011: “If the structure is changed … what incentive is there for local people to volunteer and raise money?” In resisting restructuring, a small number of volunteers were “disciplined”.  The case sounds like the classic dilemma which other national charities have faced of tensions between national and local control – and I’m in no position to comment, only sympathise.

The Charity Commission looked into the case given “ongoing complaints” and found: “It is regrettable when disciplinary proceedings have to be brought against volunteers and we recognise that the events brought considerable distress to those involved. We did not see anything to suggest that the charity acted in a way that would bring the charity into disrepute such that the commission should become involved in these matters.”

The point about disrepute echoes the concern of Lord Hodgson in his review of charity law where he warned that treatment of volunteers could reduce public trust in charities. He thought responsibility should lie with charities’ self-regulation but raised the question whether there should be an independent body for external referral.

Following the Volunteer Rights Inquiry, I chaired the Call to Action Progress Group (2011-2014) when I worked for Volunteering England and NCVO. Our final report reviewed, without finding a consensus, the question of whether there was a need for an external regulatory system or whether that would be disproportionate and the problem tackled through good management practice. We recommended organisations sign-up to the 3R Promise (get it Right, offer Reconciliation and take Responsibility) which had been formulated by the Inquiry.

My perception is that volunteering organisations are more conscious of the problem and widely have instituted good practice – including, to my knowledge, St John Ambulance.

But the issue of volunteer rights won’t go away. A small number of volunteers are unfairly treated, heart-breakingly so, and – at least prima facie – in ways that offend public policy, let alone charity governance.

So, I believe, the question remains whether there is a need for a procedure or institution independent of volunteering organisations? Is the Charity Commission’s position, as clarified, sufficient? And if not it, who might take the role, and how?

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

To Pay Or Not To Pay? That is the question

We're very pleased to welcome back guest blogger Mel White. Mel wrote a two country perspective on volunteering and welfare to work schemes for us late in 2014 and now brings that same dual nation perspective to the issue of reimbursing volunteer expenses.


A little background – I am originally from the UK having managed a Volunteer Centre service there for 15 years. I immigrated to Australia in April 2013 and within two weeks of arriving found employment within a Volunteer Resource Centre.

I have enjoyed seeing the differences in practice between the two countries but would like to share my thoughts on the practice of paying volunteer expenses.

In the UK payment of volunteer travel expenses to and from a voluntary place of work was viewed as one of the cornerstones of good practice. Certainly within the Volunteer Centre I worked at, out of over 200 volunteering opportunities fewer than ten would not cover this out of pocket expense. When an organisation first submitted their application to receive volunteer referrals from us, and indicated on the application form that they did not pay travel expenses, we would approach them to try and instil the importance of this. If their response was that their budgets did not stretch that far (usually small volunteer led organisations) then we would put them in touch with our funding advisor to look at putting together a funding bid to cover the cost. We would then advise them that whenever they put in future funding bids that they include this cost. If funding was not an option we would look at ways they might assist volunteers with travel e.g. car sharing with other volunteers or a couple of services had a bus to pick up clients to take them to social activities and they also picked up the volunteers. In some cases (particularly two large charities with huge turnovers) we held protracted meetings with senior management to explore their reasons for not paying these expenses, especially as both organisations were fairly inaccessible by public transport. Where all else failed we made all non-paying organisations aware that we would tell prospective volunteers that they would not get their travel expenses reimbursed and that this was practice we didn’t agree with. It was then the volunteer’s personal decision whether to follow that application through.

Given this background imagine my complete surprise to arrive in Australia and find this was not the model here. In fact it is quite the opposite; there is a minority of organisations that do cover volunteers travel expenses to and from their place of work. Thankfully the volunteer project I am managing is one of the few, so day to day my morals and everything I believe in are not compromised.

In my 18 months here I have had the conversation regarding travel expenses with so many professionals and felt I needed to record my thoughts in a blog post.

To me the payment of travel expenses to and from a volunteering role is  fundamental to an inclusive volunteering program. When looking at the diversity of our volunteer base we talk about engaging people from all walks of life and where possible, not holding any bias with regard to age, gender, mental health, physical ability, race, sexual orientation etc.. However my concern is that by not reimbursing the cost of travel to and from a place of voluntary work we are in fact financially discriminating against a huge group of individuals who are on low incomes. Running a car is not without expense and don’t get me started on public transport costs!

For those who are living on state benefits or a pension, the reluctance by many organisations to cover this cost is a huge barrier to them becoming involved. It could quite simply be the choice between food for the week for the family or volunteering and it’s obvious what the majority would choose.

There is also the rurality argument. I hear so much about engaging people from rural communities and country towns. Many argue that small towns have greater community cohesiveness and there are lots of opportunities to volunteer on your own doorstep. But what if people want a different volunteering experience at, for example, a zoo or a large hospital? Those opportunities are not available where they live, but travel outside of their town may be a financial impossibility without a contribution to travel expenses.

There is also the issue of car parking. Some larger organisations like zoos and hospitals or organisations located in busy cities may not have dedicated spaces for volunteer parking and this can be another hefty cost burden to the volunteer.

Introducing the payment of expenses seems to be a terrifying prospect when they have not been paid before. There is the fear that flood gates will open and volunteer projects will not have the disposable income to cover the costs. Yes budgets need to be considered before this is done and it may, for a while, be a long term goal but an important one to work towards.

What many fail to realise is that not all volunteers want to claim travel expenses.

My advice to volunteer involving organisations in the UK used to be to encourage all volunteers to claim their travel expenses. However on the claim form they could choose to donate their expenses back to the organisation if they did not want them. The really clever organisations then gift aided this donation!

By getting all volunteers to submit a claim you can clearly demonstrate the cost of running a volunteer program whether that be to higher management, funders, government or other stakeholders. Within the project I manage here only 30% of volunteers claim their expenses. The important thing is they have the choice and the control. Every quarter, regardless, they all get sent an expenses claim sheet. People’s circumstances change quickly; people become bereaved, they or their partners lose jobs, they have families - there is a myriad of reasons why someone who once did not want to claim expenses may now need to.

One of the answers I get that really grinds my gears when I ask about payment of expenses, is the following; ‘if people are suffering hardship they can ask us and we will make special arrangements to cover their travel expenses.’

Really??? From the point of view of someone who has experienced financial difficulties, my sense of dignity would not have allowed me to make such an approach. I would have quite simply walked away from my voluntary role. Where circumstances have changed e.g. a marriage breakdown, that could be an incredibly personal and emotional situation for someone to discuss. A person’s financial status to my mind is a private matter. We don’t ask volunteers to declare their financial situation on an application form so why should we expect them to then disclose it further down the line?

In the same vein, how many projects make it clear that there will be an out of pocket cost to volunteer with their organisation? Often this is not just travel but volunteers find they have to pay for a police check, buy specific clothing or use their own telephone. Too often this is not made clear from the out set. By covering certain volunteers expenses we as volunteer managers are making a lot of assumptions about all our volunteers and we risk singling out certain volunteers for special treatment which may create team conflict if others find out about it. I know the intention is well meaning but for me personally it is really bad practice.

In the UK, one large organisation we dealt with had a volunteer manager who could not see the inequality of his practice. The opportunity they offered was completely unique but their location was semi-rural and certainly within walking distance of only two small villages. The cost of a bus fare from the nearest town was costly and the organisation was a large tourist attraction. Despite many protracted conversations with this organisation the manager always stated that none of their hundreds of volunteers had ever asked about expenses. Enquiring as to the diversity of their volunteer workforce it seemed a typical volunteer would be white, financially independent, middle aged with their own transport. It was such a shame that effectively volunteering with this organisation did have hidden barriers that no one was prepared to change.

Possibly one of the biggest volunteer projects the UK has ever seen that did not pay expenses was the 2012 London Olympics. It’s fair to say I was disappointed by the whole way volunteering opportunities were managed. Yes, people could volunteer but they had to fund their own transport and accommodation in London for the length of time the Games were on. Maybe not so bad if you lived in the capital. They rolled a program out in the lead up to the Games aimed at disengaged young people who needed literacy and numeracy tuition. The ‘reward’ upon completion of the course was a guaranteed volunteer role at the Games. Thousands and thousands of pounds was thrown into this program and many young people were able to gain a much sought after volunteer role. Was any money set aside to actually assist them in funding the cost of living in London for two weeks not to mention the plane/train/automobile cost to get there? You’ve guessed it – no!

I also took a heartbreaking call from a mature student who had worked so hard to realise her dream of getting valuable experience in stage production. She had put herself through university and had secured a volunteer role to help with set design and production of the opening ceremony at the Games. She was then devastated to discover she had to fully fund her accommodation and transport to take up the coveted place. She quite simply could not afford to. I believe the London 2012 committee missed a real opportunity to lead the way in recognising all volunteers and raising the profile of volunteering by setting a fantastic example of a full cost recovery volunteering program.
The landscape of volunteering is changing and increasingly government programs see the value of voluntary work experience in progressing people towards the (paid) labour market. In Australia a new program ‘Work for the Dole’ is about to roll out. An optional activity people can engage in, is voluntary work. I hope advisors ensure the budgets they have for individuals, go towards their travel expenses to and from their voluntary placement.

Volunteers are not free labour and should never be viewed as such, it costs real money to recruit, train, support and manage them. Full cost recovery is a term bandied about in the UK. Full cost recovery is recovering the total costs of your project or activity, including the relevant proportion of all overhead costs. Understanding the full costs of projects, or services, may not result in full cost recovery every time. However, calculating the full costs enables you to understand the exact level of funding you require. It also provides a clear picture of how a particular project draws on the shared resources of your organisation. When putting together a volunteer program the full costs are rarely fully funded / recovered but to my mind, top of the priority list should be volunteer travel expenses.
I hate using the financial argument to justify the importance of volunteers but I will indulge in this for a moment. If their work was paid for by the hour using whatever salary amount you wish (minimum wage, average wage) it is never ever going to be anywhere near the cost of a bus fare or vehicle mileage.

Most definitions of volunteering state it is a contribution of time and volunteers should not be expected to inadvertently volunteer their own money as well, without choice to do so.
By saying ‘but they are volunteers’ does not justify the argument to not cover their out of pocket expenses. In doing so we run the risk of making voluntary work a pursuit of the financially elite, an activity you can engage in if you can afford it and we restrict ourselves from the wealth of untapped potential and skills and the opportunity to grow our volunteer workforce.