Thursday, 16 April 2015

What I think about the latest Tory proposal on volunteering

Last Friday (10 April 2015) David Cameron announced that if the Conservatives win the UK General Election on 7th May 2015 they would introduce a new legal right for employees in the public sector and large private firms to have three days a year of paid leave in order to volunteer.

Recognising the benefits of employee volunteering, many groups were quick to endorse the proposals.

CIPD (the professional body for Human Resources) welcomed the idea as did the Confederation of British Industry.

Amusingly, the trade union movement - who are usually so quick to criticise volunteers as the enemy of paid workers - quickly backtracked on their initial cautious welcome when it became apparent volunteering for a union would not be considered under the scheme.

Many in the Voluntary and Community Sector have also warmly welcomed Cameron’s proposal.

NCVO’s Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington blogged on why it would be good for business whilst Kristen Stephenson helpfully outlined why employee volunteering can be a good thing more broadly.

The Charities Aid Foundation also gave their endorsement as did the sector Chief Executives body ACEVO, whose Director of Policy, Asheem Singh, was quoted in Civil Society saying:

“This is exciting news – it recognises the crucial role of charities in building a better society. The workplace is a new frontier for social action, and this new legal right will help support a new generation of socially responsible citizens.”

However, at an event on Monday some senior fundraisers (not volunteer managers, fundraisers!) called into question the viability of the Conservative proposal whilst both CSV and Timebank have made the point that it needs properly thinking though and resourcing if it is to work.

The Association of Volunteer Managers have said nothing.

So what do I think?

Let’s start with the positive. To an extent I agree that anything which promotes and encourages volunteering is to be welcomed. However, I have two big caveats to this.

First, the solution is not always more volunteers. As I said when I blogged on the Labour Party’s proposals for volunteering back in 2014:

“We are concerned Labour are falling into the common trap of assuming that more volunteers is a measure of success. Any professional leader and manager of volunteers would be quite clear that if an organisation’s mission can be fulfilled effectively with ten volunteers then to recruit 100 to do the same task is wasteful and inefficient.”

Second, initiatives to increase the supply of volunteers completely fail to recognise that the demand needs to be there for these people. Meaningful opportunities need creating to accommodate all these additional time givers and ensure they have a great experiences as volunteers. A shortcut to disaster would be to engage loads of new people, manage them badly, give them a terrible experience and send them on their way. Do you imaging many (any?) of them would be keen to volunteer again? Moreover, as the Boston Globe highlighted recently, employee volunteering can be more of a burden than a help to many good causes.

So, if that’s the positive (!), what about the negative?

First, the Conservative proposals are yet another example of a political party policy initiative on volunteering that looks good but fails to acknowledge that investment is needed to make it happen. Volunteering is freely given but not cost free. As I just noted, if all these additional volunteers are going to come forward opportunities need creating, organisational cultures need to be changed to be more open towards volunteers and resource (time, money, will to act etc.) needs finding to organise it all and maximise the potential impact.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Tory announcement is the failure of most of the main sector bodies to even acknowledge that for the idea to work something needs to change. Whether that something is the attitude of leaders in the sector to properly understand and support volunteering, or it is funding for more volunteer management resource, or both, nobody except Timebank or CSV appears to have even raised this issue. Worse, the professional association for volunteer managers has been totally silent.

Second, and related, is the issue of infrastructure. It has long been accepted that good employee volunteering happens when a competent broker gets involved. This broker negotiates the needs of the good cause with the aims of the employer and matches the two up to best mutual benefit. 

Sadly, the last government’s austerity agenda slashed funding for national and local volunteering infrastructure to the point where the capacity to deliver something like Cameron’s new proposals barely exists compared to five years ago. Not only have the organisations closed or significantly downsized but much of the knowledge and expertise built up over many years has left the roles that were made redundant. 

Perhaps there is no better illustration of the short-sightedness of dismantling the sector's support infrastructure whilst expecting volunteering to flourish.

Third, and finally, what is acceptable volunteering? Set aside the old debate about whether paid time off for volunteering is actually volunteering (and I think it is - is paid time off for holiday not holiday?) but the position on union volunteering makes it clear that the Conservatives view some volunteering as more valid than other ways of giving time. This is not a new issue but one that rarely gets thought through. 

Consider these two previous examples:

  1. The Local Government Association (LGA) proposing that people get a discount on their Council Tax if they volunteer, an idea that seems to have stalled when it became apparent how much record keeping and administration is required to assess and approve what it valid volunteering and how much time people give to those causes.
  2. The last Labour government’s wizard wheeze to speed up citizenship applications for those immigrants who volunteer, an idea which collapsed for the exact same reason as the LGA’s idea.

So what will constitute valid volunteering under Cameron’s grand new volunteering plan? Who will assess and approve this? Who will record how much of those three days gets used? What will happen to people’s legal right to time off to volunteer for other causes? These questions are all unanswered and until they are addressed I cannot endorse the idea at all.

Of course these proposals may only see the light of day if we get a Conservative government on May 8th. Given the closeness of this election that seems an unlikely outcome. I can see the idea being dropped as quickly as possible in any coalition negotiations. 

So maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about the Tories and their new idea, but we definitely should worry at the response - or lack thereof - of the majority of sector bodies. This is the first chance in a post-Volunteering England age to see how our national infrastructure representatives speak up for the realities of volunteer management. I think it's pretty clear that with a couple of notable exceptions (CSV and Timebank) they failed the test. 

Let’s hope they do better with whatever government we do get.

They couldn’t do much worse could they?

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Whisper it quietly, Jimmy Saville was a volunteer

We are all too aware of the recent celebrity child abuse scandals in the UK, in particular the appalling case of Jimmy Saville. Saville abused hundreds of people over many years with many a blind eye being turned to his behaviour by the media, police, regulators and other official bodies.

The world of volunteer management has escaped lightly. Few have sought to draw the connection between Saville’s behaviour and his status as a volunteer. It has had passing mention in the media coverage but scrutiny of volunteering has been scant.

Just one instance has come across my radar, an article in The Guardian at the end of February 2015, which highlights the Lampard Review of the NHS in regard to Saville and in particular the concerns about volunteer management in the NHS.

The article notes that Lampard highlights four key issues.

First, that the risk to patients of being abused could increase as more volunteers are brought in to work in an increasingly cash-strapped health service.

“They [volunteers] undertake a much wider variety of roles and often have much closer contact with patients than in the past.”

Second, that volunteer management isn’t taken seriously enough at a senior level within the NHS.

“Many NHS volunteer programmes are not managed and overseen at a senior level and do not have the management resources they need.”

Third, the need for effective screening of volunteers, with Lampard reportedly calling on the NHS to amend regulations to make sure staff and volunteers were subjected to criminal records checks every three years.

Finally, The Guardian says that: 

“Lampard also raised concerns about the lack of any cohesive structure within NHS hospitals for managing visits by celebrities, important fundraisers and donors despite the publicity around Savile’s decades of abuse.”

These are not four discrete issues, they are inter-related, so let me try and unpick them a bit.

To start with, an increase in volunteers within any organisation does not automatically increase risk. What does often increase the risk is poorly thought out reasons and strategy for volunteer involvement (often a consequence of a lack of strategic management engagement in the volunteer programme) and ineffective screening, often borne out of poorly resourced volunteer management structures.

Good volunteer programmes don’t just take anyone off the street and put them in unsupervised contact with vulnerable people. We should not assume that just because volunteers are unpaid they are incompetent or inherently a risky proposition. But good programmes need resourcing if they are to do their job properly and they need to be properly integrated into the whole organisation. This requires CEOs, boards and the like to properly understand and engage with volunteering as a strategic priority, not just say how essential volunteers are as they issue warmly worded statements in Volunteers’ Week.

This is perhaps the most fundamental issue Lampard highlights and one that needs action not just within the NHS but in many Volunteer Involving Organisations across all sectors, including the Voluntary and Community Sector. 

The point made by Lampard about celebrities and major donors not being properly supervised and their involvement not properly structured in the NHS is a great example. 

Throughout my career in the voluntary sector I have come across fundraisers, CEOs and senior managers who dismiss out of hand any suggestion that good volunteer management practices should be applied to the involvement of high profile supporters, despite their status as volunteers. Why? Because often they see volunteer management as concerned with the nice to haves, the little old ladies making the tea, and not with the important work of more serious concerns like celebrity endorsement of the cause. 

The Jimmy Saville situation highlights the stupidity of this and the irresponsible thinking behind it. To continue such a train of thought borders on the negligent. Yet still that line is seen as acceptable in fundraising departments and sector senior teams. It is surely time for this to be challenged!

As a quick aside, for some insightful and intelligent thinking on the issues of celebrities as volunteers I commend you to Eileen Hammond’s excellent book for the Directory of Social Change, “Patrons, Presidents and Personalities”.

So far I have highlighted issues that I think the Lampard review gets right. Senior management needs to take seriously the strategic involvement of volunteers, resource it properly and organisations need to stop seeing celebrity volunteers as having a protected, special status that allows them to operate outside of existing good practice.

I want to conclude with one aspect I think Lampard gets wrong, calling for the Department of Health to change regulations so staff and volunteers undergo DBS checks every three years. I’m not going to go into huge detail here because I’ve blogged on this previously. My concern is that the sole focus on DBS checks will not result in better safety for NHS patients who have volunteers assigned to them. Jimmy Saville would have always passed a DBS check because ehe was never caught. Robust screening goes way beyond a criminal record check and so should this recommendation from Lampard.

Returning to where I started, the scandal of Jimmy Saville and others being allowed to abuse people for so long behind the screen of their celebrity status is rightly abhorrent to us all. That it was allowed to continue for so long is deplorable. Yet thank goodness volunteer management has not been thrust to the fore of these stories. I fear the field would have been exposed for its failings, mainly a consequence not of volunteer managers themselves but of the layers of management in Volunteer Involving Organisations across all sectors who fail to see volunteering as a strategic priority. 

Let’s hope it doesn't take another scandal like Saville for that situation to change and volunteer involvement to be taken seriously by those who should know better.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

A challenge to change

Last week saw the much anticipated (by me anyway!) publication of the final report of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing.

The report is a joy to read, presented in an engaging way and running to a mere thirteen pages. It is also, in my humble opinion, essential reading for anyone working in the voluntary sector and / or working with volunteers.

For me, the following quotes from the report highlight the importance of Volunteer Involving Organisations looking in new ways at the volunteering potential of people of all ages, but especially the baby boomer generation:

The reserve army of “little old ladies” (and men) upon whom so many voluntary organisations depend, will be juggling ever more demands
on their time. Informed by their more varied cultural, educational and professional backgrounds, future generations will have different expectations of, and attitudes towards, their later lives.

Our sense of community may change, with the local less relevant as global loyalties are easier to maintain.

All these changes will disrupt society and also the way charities work - ”business as usual” is not an option.

Older people have historically volunteered in large numbers, so the retirement of the baby boomer generation could offer the voluntary sector a boost in numbers and talent. However volunteering will have to “compete” against increasing demands on people’s time and resources—including paid employment, caring for parents, spouses and/or grandchildren, as well as travel and leisure.

We need new types of flexible, skilled volunteer roles and consultancy-style internships, which will be attractive to people looking for new opportunities
to use their skills in later life.

The four generation “4G” workforce should be the norm across the sector, with young and old working together.

The full report can be downloaded from the Commission website (opens a link to a pdf document) and whilst it's origins are in the UK it is both of relevance and interest to other nations too.

There are huge challenges resulting from the work of the Commission. For example:

  • How can organisations make the necessary changes to maximise the potential of volunteers  when understanding of and genuine support (the kind that goes beyond mere warm words) for volunteering at a strategic level in many organisations is, to put it kindly, extremely poor?

  • How can leaders and managers of volunteers develop their programmes to engage people in new ways when the resourcing their receive from their organisations is so poor and seen as such a low priority?

  • Will many in the sector finally see the need to break down traditional silos, for example between fundraising, volunteering, membership etc., so that properly integrated supporter journeys become the norm not the exception?

I spend a lot of time helping organisations of all sizes think through issues like this and reflect on what steps they can take. If you would like to discuss how I can help you understand and tackle these issues please get in touch.