Wednesday, 2 July 2014

One Nation Labour: renewing our bond with the third sector

In this blog post I want to share my response to the current consultation being undertake by the Labour Party, "One Nation Labour: renewing our bond with the third sector".

I would very much welcome your thoughts on my contribution to their consultation and I'd love to hear what you may have submitted yourselves.


Our response

A contextual observation
As with many things concerning the third sector, volunteering cannot be separated from the context within which it occurs, be that the sector context or the wider societal context. 

Our first comment then, in light of the rest of the consultation document issued by Labour, is that if there are some 15million volunteers (at least) and 800,000 paid staff in the third sector then on sheer volume alone we find it hard to understand how you can state that paid staff are “the sector’s biggest asset”. In fact, considering the vast majority of third sector organisations have no paid staff and run entirely on volunteers, we would caution Labour to rethink this position. 

Volunteers are the sectors biggest asset, without them large parts of the sector cease to function, including those organisations which employ, many paid staff. Without volunteers, many of these sector employees would have no jobs as the agencies they work for would not exist in the first place. Without volunteers, the very fabric of our society in the UK would be immensely poorer, as Justin Davis Smith so eloquently articulated in Volunteers’ Week 2014.

What could a Labour Government do to encourage and support more people to volunteer? 
We question the assumption that more volunteers are what our society needs. 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.

The question should therefore not be “What could a Labour Government do to encourage and support more people to volunteer?” but perhaps “What could a Labour Government do to encourage and support more organisations to provide meaningful, enjoyable and rewarding volunteer experiences that meet the needs of people today whilst delivering effective social change?”. This important change leads to a significant shift in emphasis which, if applied in practical ways (for example to replace the simple numbers game criteria when organisations apply for funding from the State, lottery, trusts & foundations etc.) would help to bring about a significant shift in the strategic importance of volunteering to third sector organisations.

As the American consultant and expert Susan Ellis put it recently in one of her monthly Hot Topic essays:

“Most of the time funding is sought by organizations for program ideas generated by paid staff, often to hire more paid staff. Only after money has been obtained does someone say, “let’s get volunteers to help.” Waiting until the end of the process to “add in” volunteers is a huge missed opportunity because it does not maximize the contribution of volunteers to the brains of an organization!  nstead, involve volunteers from the beginning of planning a new initiative, to generate more ideas and add their perspectives and knowledge.  Next, strategize what volunteers will be asked to do in implementing the initiative if funded, and explain that in the actual proposal – including budgeting funds to support their efforts.  This sequence of events considers volunteers as essential team members, not as an afterthought.”

Such a shift in thinking by leaders of third sector organisations is essential if those same organisations are to not only deliver great volunteering opportunities but also lead their organisations to success in the post-recession, austerity driven environment in which they operate. In short, a new mindset is needed for a new age and continuing to measure success in numbers of volunteers will not bring that change about.

Finally, focusing success criteria on the quality of the volunteering experience rather than the volume of people giving time could have the following three positive impacts:

  1. More people enjoy their volunteering resulting in them wanting to do more of it and becoming more evangelical about the experience with friends, family, colleagues etc..
  2. Helping support an effective volunteering legacy after large scale public events. Clearly people were inspired to volunteer by the Games Makers and others but their experience was unlikely to match up to that seen at such a once-in-a-lifetime event as we saw in 2012. A focus on the volunteer experience might have helped ameliorate this rather than just plugging more people into the same old tired and un-inspiring volunteer opportunities.
  3. Focus volunteering not only onto helping third sector organisations fulfil their mission but on the way people live their lives in the 21st century and how this affects their willingness to give - and keep giving - time. Third sector organisation have to adapt to our changing world where people don’t thrill to giving large amounts of time in an open ended commitment anymore. This requires a clearer focus on how people want to give and how to deliver a good experience in these contexts. A focus on numbers of volunteers fails to acknowledge this.

How do we encourage volunteering in areas of deprivation? 
First, we have to stop assuming that people in areas of deprivation do not volunteer. Too often the narrative assumes certain groups of people are ‘under-represented’ in volunteering, including those from areas of deprivation, disabled people, BME communities etc.. What this narrative is actually saying is that such groups are under-represented in the kid of volunteering that the state, sector, establishment etc. wants to count. It does not take into account that many people from these groups do indeed volunteer but not in ways the mainstream considers as worthwhile. For example, campaigning, advocacy, self-help etc.. This leads to an insidious conclusion, whereby people from these groups who are already active volunteers have to do what the mainstream want if they are to be counted and supported whilst their existing efforts are disregarded. That is perhaps a worse form of exclusion and discrimination that putting barriers in the way of those groups in the first place.

Bearing all that in mind, we commend two initiatives to you: 

  • The NCVO Volunteering For Stronger Communities project which concluded in December 2013. This worked in fifteen economically disadvantaged parts of the country and worked with some of those furthest from the labour market to help them engage in volunteering as a route to towards employability. The project had a 20% success rate at getting people into employment, in stark contrast to the success of the coalition’s Work Programme.
  • The Access to Volunteering fund created by the last Labour government (the evaluation is available as a pdf here) which made real and tangible steps towards helping Volunteer Involving Organisations break down barriers for those disabled people who struggled to engage in the volunteering they wanted to do.

What role should schools play in encouraging and supporting young people to volunteer? 
Having been a school governor for a number if years I can personally attest to the value of schools supporting children and young people to engage in their communities in a variety of ways. However, I want to focus less on schools but on four other issues:

  1. As with the issue of encouraging volunteering in areas of deprivation, don’t assume young people aren’t already volunteering. Too many people and institutions are all too ready to portray the UK’s young people as feckless, idle, selfish and work-shy. This may be true of a minority but it isn’t of the majority. Assuming young people don’t volunteer and creating programmes accordingly fails to acknowledge the volunteering young people already do. This is a mistake that must not be made.
  2. The importance of families in encouraging young people to volunteer must not be underestimated. The example set by parents, siblings and the wider family has a profound influence on young people’s attitudes to volunteering. Family volunteering programmes, so popular and established in countries like the USA, are woefully under-developed in the UK. The National Trust have been pioneering this work through, amongst other things, their Big Family Day Out initiative. We would encourage a future Labour Governement to explore the potential for supporting more family volunteering across the UK.
  3. We have to be mindful that the continued focus on young people giving time for no pay, whether through volunteering or internships or workfare schemes, risks alienating a generation towards volunteering. I wrote about this on my blog a couple of years ago and young people I have spoken to subsequently endorse and share my concerns. Whatever a future Labour Government does around volunteering by young people,. such concerns should be uppermost in their minds.
  4. Linking back to the first point, a key thing a future Labour Government can do to support young people to volunteer is to actually capture this is national data on volunteering. The citizenship survey, the community life survey which replaced it and the successive national survey’s of volunteering (1981, 91, 97, 07) count only volunteering by adults. Volunteering by anyone under 18 is conspicuous in its absence. This holds true in other countries as well and presents the opportunity for a future Labour Government to start being one of the first in the world to actually count volunteering by young people alongside existing data. 

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Three ways the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign may be doing more harm than good

In my last blog post I wrote about the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign (KVV) and the misunderstanding propagated by the UK media that the government's new Help To Work scheme is volunteering.

Let me say it again, Community Work Placements (CWP) under Help to Work ARE NOT VOLUNTEERING. They do not meet the definitions of volunteer (freely entered into being the key issue) and even the government recognises this.

Section 2.14 of the guidance for providers of community work placements states that:

If a claimant is already undertaking voluntary work and you can justifiably advise that the work is beneficial to the claimant by helping them to overcome barriers to employment, you may count that voluntary work towards the full time work placement hours. However, if you do not feel the voluntary work is of appropriate benefit to the claimant, you may require the claimant to do the full-time work in the placement you have sourced for them (but must give the claimant at least 1 weeks notice). Please Note: Where a claimant is already undertaking voluntary work you must also ensure you give the claimant 48 hours notice for any required participation/ attendance.

Section 2.16 states:

Please Note: JCP will refer claimants who have insufficient work history or a lack of motivation; therefore we would expect only a minimal proportion of claimants currently undertaking part-time or voluntary work to be referred to CWP.

In other words, volunteering is not the same as a CWP (if it were, no distinction would be drawn) and if someone is already volunteering it is unlikely they would be required to do a CWP. However, this is up to the discretion of the JCP adviser and that means inconsistent decisions will occur as years of past experience have taught many in the volunteering world.

Also, note that there are no other references to volunteering in the entire guidance document.

Despite this clear distinction - Help To Work and CWPs are NOT VOLUNTEERING - the KVV campaign rolls on, arguing that:

"As charities and voluntary organisations we know the value of volunteering. Volunteering means people independently choosing to give their time freely to help others and make the world a better place. Workfare schemes force unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or face benefit sanctions that can cause hardship and destitution.   We believe in keeping volunteering voluntary and will not participate in government workfare schemes.”

In my view they risk doing much more harm than good to the volunteering cause. Here are my three main concerns.

Number one
By failing to recognise that Help To Work's CWPs are not volunteering the signatories and supporters of KVV are showing their ignorance of and / or confusion about volunteering. The voluntary and community sector sector relies upon volunteers and is the main involver of volunteers so surely they should know better - the KVV statement even claims they do in its opening line!

The potential harm here is that KVV could further confuse others about volunteering and CWPs, with the public an media turning against genuine volunteering and not forced workfare.

A much more sensible approach would be for the KVV campaign to focus on educating the media on the difference between a CWP and a volunteer opportunity so the risk of public opinion being unduly swayed negatively towards volunteering is minimised.

Number two
The campaign is probably having having little influence on government. There are two main reasons for this assumption: first, government know CWPs are not volunteering so they can confidently ignore the campaign; second, as I suggested above, the effort is directed at the wrong people - the media should be the focus.

I also worry how the ignorance about volunteering that is on display from this campaign might harm the credibility of bodies who have signed up when it comes to any future campaigning about volunteering that might be needed. I can hear ministers and officials saying things like, "why should we listen to you on volunteering, you don't even understand what it is yourselves?"

Thank goodness NCVO are not signatories!

Number three
The KVV campaign is perpetuating the media driven myth that CWPs are volunteering and so creating the risk anti-workfare campaigners begging calling for a ban on all unpaid work.

Think that's far fetched? Look at this blog from the USA where someone makes the argument that all volunteering is exploitative and should be banned. How long before similar voices are heard on this side of the pond? We already have the risk of threats to volunteering from the ongoing rumblings about unpaid internships. The risk, however small we may think it is, is real and KVV is adding fuel to the fire.

In conclusion let me say that I think people are genuinely concerned about the blurring lines between volunteering and workfare. They have been for over a decade. There are genuine workfare schemes and issues to complain about and fight for beyond Help To Work and CWPs as KVV make clear on their website. I've fought some of this fights myself and will continue to do so in future.

The profile of the KVV campaign and these issues has grown because of media misreporting of Help To Work and CWPs as volunteering. This coincided with KVV calling for support and so we end up with lots of confusion and misunderstanding about what is and is not volunteering.

I genuinely do not think the people and bodies behind KVV are trying to harm volunteering. I am sure their intentions are good and I hope my views above about the potential damage being done are proven to be wrong.  But until we know that for sure I think the volunteering movement needs to consider the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign carefully and cautiously, because if I'm right they could be doing much more harm than good.

See also these related blog posts from me:

Is all work experience equal?
Are we alienating a generation of volunteers?
Is all volunteering voluntary?

Monday, 19 May 2014

Is all volunteering voluntary?

There has been much controversy in the last few weeks about the UK government’s Help To Work scheme. To quote the government press release:

“The new measures include intensive coaching, a requirement to meet with the Jobcentre Plus adviser every day, or taking part in a community work placement for up to 6 months so claimants build the skills needed to secure a full-time job”

In response to this new scheme a campaign has been initiated called Keep Volunteering Voluntary. Numerous organisations have signed up to the campaign including many Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Centres and household name charities.

However, as Jamie Ward-Smith points out in his excellent blog  on the topic, Help To Work is NOT volunteering. The mainstream media has chosen to report it as such, demonstrating their ignorance of the difference between the voluntary sector and volunteering (which takes place in the public and private sector too). Maybe that’s why the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign only want supporters from the voluntary sector, not the private or public sectors?

As Jamie points out in his blog, the government are clear that Help To Work is not volunteering. They told Civil Society that: 

“Volunteers provide a very valuable contribution to society - however the placements we are providing will help long-term unemployed claimants get the skills and experience they need to get back into work. Community Work Placements are designed for people whose lack of experience of work is holding them back from getting a job, and many community-based organisations recognise the benefits it has on their organisation, the local community, and the jobseeker.”

I find it quite worrying that agencies like NAVCA, Oxfam, Volunteer Centres and others don’t seem able to grasp the difference between people working in the voluntary sector and volunteers. These are agencies we look to for expertise, organisations with long track records in the volunteering movement. Why can’t they get that distinction? 

But this blog isn’t about criticising the organisers and supporters of the Keep Volunteering Voluntary scheme. Misinformed they may be but their heart is probably in the right place. Rather I want to question whether all the volunteering we might more readily accept as voluntary actually is, and whether it actually matters.

Consider for a minute the undergraduate student. All must do some kind of volunteering at university if they are to stand a chance of getting a job because a degree is no longer a guarantee of employment - employers want something else too. So amongst their studies and the part time work they do to cover their costs they go out and volunteer. Nobody is forcing these students in the sense of the critics of Help To Work but they can’t not do it or they limit their chance of a job. Look at it that way and their ability to freely choose to volunteer becomes more limited.

Think about the high school students in the USA who have to do some volunteering in order to graduate high school. They may not have a choice to do the work but they can choose what they do and where they volunteer. They are exercising some choice. Is that enough?

You see the issue of freely choosing to volunteer (or not) isn’t as clear cut as some would have us believe. Add into that the reality that in many schemes where people are required to volunteer they go on to do much more volunteering subsequently than those who weren’t made to give time in the first place. RockCorps found this as did many of those USA high schools. Isn’t it worth bending the definition a little if it means more people giving more time as a result?

And then there is the risk that if we are so ‘purist’ in our thinking we limit the scope of our relevance as Volunteer Managers.

Jayne Cravens and Martin J Cowling wrote about this in an excellent article for e-Volunteerism back in 2007, concluding that:

“We believe that managers of volunteers have a place at the main table of an organization. To demonstrate this, we need to take overall responsibility for all those who contribute in an unpaid capacity to the organization. The place to start is to have managers expand their views about their own responsibilities and to reconsider who is a volunteer at their organization. Managers must avoid reinforcing stereotypes and spurious distinctions about volunteers, and agree to work with, support and strategically position people who fall “outside” the realm of the limited idea of the "true" or "real" volunteer. This process is not just about creating more work; it is a completely different way of working. It raises the role of the volunteer manager from that of "nice" to that of "essential." And it helps organizations understand that their contributions are far from extraneous to the organization's core activities.“ 

I’m not trying to give neat answers here but provoke thought and discussion. Despite those who tell us the world is made up of simple black and white realities, the truth is that shades of grey abound. It is our ethical responsibility as Volunteer Managers to determine where we draw the line professional and where our agencies draw that line. But to do that we need informed thinking and debate, not campaigns driven by wrong thinking, misinformation, ignorance and a narrow world view that doesn’t stack up to the messy reality of real life.

What do you think?