Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Pay doesn't lead to competence

On today's anniversary of the launch of the Titanic it seems slightly fitting to be writing a blog post that could be summarised by the old quote, "Professionals built the Titanic but volunteers built the Ark".  I first heard this quote many years ago to illustrate the point that paying someone to do something doesn't mean they do a better job.  Sadly, this message still needs to get through to many people, especially when it comes to their understanding of the potential of volunteers.

Just last week, Community Care magazine ran an article entitled "Is social care ripe for volunteering?".  Following on from yet another re-launch of the Big Society by the Prime Minister last week, the article looks at the potential for volunteering within the context of the social care field.  

Things don't start well when the sub-heading to the piece states "The coalition government is pushing for more volunteering in social care, but will this encroach on the domain of the paid workforce?".  I'm not going to go into job displacement/replacement issues here (perhaps that's a topic for another blog) but it is sad, if not surprising, to see the article focus on a negative before it has even begun.  Why not phrase it in terms of how volunteering could add value to social work?

Anyway, I digress.  What I want to focus on here are the comments attributed to Helga Pile, National Officer for social work at the public service union Unison.

Ms Pile starts by saying that "There is no doubting the commitment and value that volunteers can offer, but public services must be delivered by trained, qualified staff who are part of a stable workforce. Volunteers cannot be used as a cut price alternative."

My first problem here is the assumption that volunteers are not trained or qualified.  Nobody would advocate to let untrained volunteers loose in the turbulent waters of social care or indeed any other role, yet sadly this is the default assumption.  But many volunteers are highly skilled and sometimes uniquely qualified to do challenging roles.  In the context of the Community Care article this could be because they are retired social workers, putting a lifetime of skills and experience to use as volunteers.  Or they could have undergone rigorous training to be qualified for their role and, as volunteers, perhaps gain the trust of clients because of their unpaid status, something I've seen first hand with volunteers supporting young people in care.

Before anyone comments that nobody would want to put their skills to use in such a challenging context, especially if they have spent their working lives doing similar roles, then take as an example the recent case of the retired engineers volunteering to work at the still very dangerous Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

My second problem with Ms Pile's comments is that by using 'cut price alternative' language she seems to be implying that part of the problem with volunteers getting involved in social care is that they are unpaid.  Set aside the issues of competence Ms Pile, like many others, seems to be equating unpaid with unqualified.

This thought process seems to be revealed further as the article progresses.

"Trained, qualified workers are able to make very complex judgments around risk - 'spotting the danger signs that volunteers could easily miss,' she [Ms Pile] says. They also benefit from the experience and knowledge of colleagues and, crucially, they are totally accountable to local people."

Let's explore that a bit further.  Set aside the false assumption we've looked at that volunteers are by definition unqualified, the argument seems to be that trained, qualified and (by implication) paid social workers spot danger signs volunteers would miss, make complex judgements volunteers are incapable of and are accountable to local people.  


Was that the case with Baby P?  Victoria Climbie?  Khyra Ishaq?  Amy Howson?  Alfie Goddard?  [See this article for details on some of these appalling cases]. 

These are emotive examples and I am not for one second using them to tar the social work profession with one brush.  Nor am I suggesting that volunteers would have done a better job in these tragic and complex cases.  

What I am saying is that we should not blindly assume that because someone is paid to do a job they are more competent, skilled and equipped than someone who might do a similar role as a volunteer.

Like it or not we live in a world where we no longer have the funds to pay for all the things we used to pay for.  Sadly that includes the salaries of employees, as I can personally testify.  

We need to develop new ways of thinking about how we meet the challenges we face.  In human resource terms, this includes how we deploy paid staff and volunteers to maximum effect and client/community benefit.  

To do this we need to cultivate more open minds about what volunteers can do and their potential to meet these challenges.  

Simply dismissing volunteers as unpaid and incompetent has always been insulting.  

Maintaining that mindset today could have serious consequences for our ability to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society in future.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Quality volunteering and the European Year of Volunteering 2011

At the end of 2010, whilst working for Volunteering England (VE), I applied to be a part of a working group looking at the issue of quality volunteering for the European Year of Volunteering 2011 (EYV2011).  The EYV2011 Alliance organising the six working groups then invited me to co-chair the group with a representative of the French Red Cross.  An invitation I eagerly accepted and a role I am continuing on behalf of VE now I have left their employment.

Perhaps because people know of my role as co-chair of the quality volunteering working group, as we come up on the halfway point of EYV2011 people are increasingly asking me what is happening.  

On the home front things have been very quiet.  There isn't much information available from VE (although they do have some helpful pages on their website) or its sister bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  My take on this in England is that the paucity of news and activity is a consequence of the Office for Civil Society (OCS are the 'coordinating body' in the UK) being incredibly slow to get themselves organised and get out funding for activity during 2011.  You can argue that OCS have had other priorities in their first few months under a new government and so it was inevitable that EYV2011 took a bit of a backseat.  Personally, I think EYV2011 could be a huge opportunity for volunteering, as we saw in the UK year of volunteering in 2005 and the UN year of volunteering in 2001.  I think OCS have missed a bit of a trick up until now and I hope their efforts to promote the year improve in the next few months, especially now funding has been distributed and delivery partners are starting their activity.

But I am not writing this post to bleat about missed opportunities.  Instead, in the absence of any other information on activity in EYV2011, I wanted to share some of the work I have been doing with the amazing team of people from across the EU who form the Alliance's working group on quality volunteering.

When we met for the first time in Budapest in January this year, it was very apparent that we were coming at the issue of quality volunteering from a very diverse range of perspectives (see this article by Susan Ellis and Steve McCurley for a quick insight into the challenges of defining quality volunteering).  In fact, we quickly discovered that we didn't always share a common understanding of volunteering, such are the national, cultural and historical contexts in which the act of giving time which we call volunteering has been shaped across member states.

So we took the step of communicating with an array of networks from which working group members were drawn in order to source a wider range of views upon which to base our work.  The input received was brought to and considered at the second meeting of the working group in March.  At that meeting we agreed that there were four key drivers of quality volunteering that we needed to focus on:

  • The quality of the work volunteers do
  • The quality of the opportunities volunteers undertake
  • The quality of the management of volunteers
  • The enablers of quality volunteering e.g. funding, policy etc.

These were helpfully set out as the wheel of quality:

Following the March meeting the working group members split into four sub-groups, each tasked with reporting back on the four aspects of quality volunteering in time for the next meeting of the full working group which takes place on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st May 2011.  The sub-groups were asked to:

  • Define the aspect of quality volunteering they were addressing
  • Outline the current status i.e. what already happens in that aspect of quality volunteering
  • Make recommendations to the EU, Member States (i.g. national, regional and local governments), Social Partners (such as business and trade unions) and Civil Society. 

The working group meeting at the end of this week will be a key stage in the process.  The required outcome of the meeting is a three page report to the EYV2011 Alliance that will form the initial basis of an EU policy agenda on volunteering.  In this short report we will have to present a concise, coherent and powerful position on our understanding of quality volunteering, the current position across Europe, our desired vision for the future and our proposals for how to make it happen.

Following the May meeting the Alliance and its Steering Group will collate and refine the output of all six working groups and, over the summer, prepare a draft of the intended policy agenda.  This will be considered by all working groups at the end of September ahead of the final conference of the year in Poland where the proposals will be presented as the finished policy agenda to the European Commission.

So that's the process, what about the content?

Well, I don't want to share too much with you at this stage as I don't wish to prejudice the outcome of what I hope will be a focused and fruitful discussion in Brussels at the end of this week.  However, I am happy to share with you my own thoughts in preparation for the meeting which I hope will prompt comments and discussion via this blog.

I have drafted my own definition of quality volunteering and my personal assessment of the current situation and vision for the future.  These are:


Quality volunteering results when organisations provide opportunities that accommodate the needs & motivations of the volunteer whilst allowing them to make meaningful impacts on the organisation itself and its beneficiaries. 

Quality volunteering is further enhanced when it is effectively supported & resourced by the volunteer involving organisation and enabling frameworks & policies exist through the likes of funders, governments (at all levels) and wider civil society.

Current situation

One of the sub-groups summed it up best when they said that it is “difficult to establish a Europe-wide list of current practice in the voluntary sector”.

Understanding, practice, policy, awareness and resources around the issue of quality volunteering is currently so diverse across member states that it is incredibly hard to engage in common dialogue.  This makes it equally hard to agree common actions that will drive up the quality of volunteering across the EU.

Vision for the future
There is a common understanding of the key principles and components of quality volunteering with all key actors (EU, member states, civil society and social partners) working to apply these in a contextually relevant way.  With funding, policy and practice aligned to these key principles and components quality volunteering will become the norm across the EU.

I would also add that I see the following recommendations as being important (some are mine, some come from others in the group) and will be discussing these and others with the working group later in the week:

  • EU funding needs not to be based on the number of volunteers but on the quality of the opportunities available to them i.e. fund quality volunteer opportunities and people will be more likely to volunteer which will result in more volunteers. (NB – this could apply to all funders).
  • Trade unions should work with civil society to agree principles that allow volunteering to flourish and contribute effectively to society but which do not undermine the rights of paid workers.
  • All civil society organisations throughout Europe should monitor the impact of their work and pass the results to funders/governments as the accepted method of showing benefits of the work of a particular charity.
  • Civil society organisations must invest resources in the effective leadership and management of volunteers and volunteer programmes so as to deliver quality volunteering experiences.

As I say, I do not share these thoughts in order to influence the outcome of the collaborative work of the working group.  Rather I offer them here to help give an insight into this important aspect of the European Year of Volunteering, to inform about what is going on during the year and to encourage you to share your own thoughts and ideas below.

Over to you.

  • How would you define quality volunteering?
  • What would your vision for quality volunteering in the EU be?
  • What recommendations would you make, to the EU, to member states, to social partners and to civil society?

Monday, 9 May 2011

Putting your money where your mouth is

Over the weekend I read an interview with Julie Corbett-Bird, Director of the Blackfriars Settlement, that appeared last week in Third Sector magazine.  In it, Corbett-Bird explains why her organisation is investing money from the Office for Civil Society's Transition Fund in recruiting a volunteer manager for the organisation.

First off I want to congratulate Blackfriars Settlement for getting their hands on this money.  The Transition Fund didn't have the easiest of criteria to meet, something we struggled with when I worked at Volunteering England and we tried to evaluate who amongst our members might be eligible.

However, I do have a two issues with the article as it appeared in Third Sector.

To start with, the article (not Corbett-Bird) refers to how the organisation "uses" volunteers.  That kind of language is thankfully disappearing so it is a shame to see the Voluntary and Community Sector's main trade publication using it so freely.  

Nobody "uses" volunteers.  Using people is not a positive thing.  Imagine the uproar if managers referred to "using" staff.  People may be a resource but they are not used - to say so would be to equate them to a photocopier or stapler.  Think about the things you say you use in your everyday life - would you want to be equated with those?

This may seem like mere semantics but there is an important point behind the need for attention to detail on the language we use (!) about volunteering.  Previous generations may have volunteered out of a sense of duty and self-sacrifice but this is a declining trend.  Today's volunteers (young and old alike) want to be involved and engaged in the causes they give their time to, even if they give that time in short bursts.  They do not want to be used.

This trend is complemented by an increasing desire from volunteers to use their skills and expertise in their volunteering, to help shape the role they do not simply to perform a task as stipulated by the organisation.  To suggest we "use" volunteers sends a clear message that we're in control and that the volunteer has little scope to bring their talents and abilities to the party.

The point I'm making is that if we employ the language of using people we give a less than encouraging impression that we'll really provide a meaningful opportunity to support our organisations.

So please, if you talk about "using" volunteers as the author of this article seems to, please give some serious consideration to changing because the language you use may be holding back your volunteer programme.  

The second point I want to pick up from the article is related to the comments made by Corbett-Bird.  She explains the reasons for the organisation's use of the Transition Fund money to employ a volunteer manager thus:

"Our volunteers bring vital skills to support the work we do, but to date we haven't had anyone central to manage them"

Seems innocuous right?  Wrong!

Let me put the quote another way - 'Our volunteers bring vital skills to support the work we do, but to date we haven't prioritised resources for anyone central to manage them'.

My question is why not?  If volunteers are that vital to the great work Blackfriars settlement do, why haven't they invested money in employing someone to do the work that Corbett-Bird goes on to explain this new post will do?  Why, if volunteering is that important, is it not treated as such already?

At the end of the article, Corbett-Bird states:  

"If our level of service delivery depends on volunteers, it might be appropriate for the services to pay from their budgets towards the management of those volunteers"

Sorry.  It might be appropriate?!  If the level of service delivery depends on volunteers it would seem critical that services pay from their budgets to ensure good quality support for volunteering.

Between late 2009 and March 2011 Volunteering England worked with (the now closed down NDPBCapacitybuilders and the Office for Civil society to develop and implement the Value Volunteer Management Campaign.  The campaign was intended to help persuade senior managers, trustees etc. to see the importance of investing resources in their volunteer programmes and to equip volunteer managers with resources to influence up themselves.

I was the Director responsible for this work at VE and I remain passionate about what we were trying to achieve.  For, whilst it is great that an organisation like Blackfriars Settlement is using a source of scare external funding to support their volunteers, I would question their commitment to volunteering if they haven't invested their own funds previously or have a strong plan to do so in future when the Transition Funds run out.

This under-investment in volunteering, this disconnect between the rhetoric of 'volunteers are important' and the reality of funding and support for volunteer engagement, is an all too common situation in organisations, and not just because of the financial hardships many find themselves in.  Even in the 'good old days' of high funding levels, organisational investment in and support for volunteering was woefully small across the sector.

Whether an organisation has twenty or twenty thousand volunteers, if they are playing a vital role in the fulfilment of the organisations mission they deserve proper support, and not just from external sources.  Organisations involving volunteers need to put their resources where their mouths are if they want to effectively engage volunteers.

The world is changing and so are volunteers.  If organisations fail to invest in volunteering then the future does not look good for them. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


If you are a reader of blogs, articles, tweets and a variety of other material on volunteerism then the concept of microvolunteering cannot have escaped your notice in recent months.

In a nutshell, the idea is that you can take part in volunteering through activities that require a very small commitment of your time.  They are commonly available online (although offline microvolunteering does take place and has done so for years), especially via mobile phone apps and other technological and/or social networking means. 

I won't go into more detail here about what microvolunteering is because plenty of others have covered the topic before.  For example, Help From Home have produced a very good free download introducing the concept and have also made freely available a guide to setting up a microvolunteering project.  Sam Sparrow, the excellent head of the volunteer unit at Catch 22, has also written on the subject to in her blog about modernising volunteering the micro way.

Anyone who has heard me speak on the microvolunteering concept will know what whilst I think the idea has potential, I am also sceptical about its two most commonly stated benefits:

  • That microvolunteering allows people who don't volunteer because they don't have the time to give to engage in ways that fit their lives 

  • That those who engage in microvolunteering will likely catch the volunteering and become more regular volunteers in future.

For me there are three reasons for my scepticism on microvolunteering.

Time poverty - real or perceived?
Firstly, we seem to be buying into the belief that people don't volunteer because they don't have the time.  In my experience, people don't volunteer because they think they don't have the time.  That's an important distinction.

If they really don't have the time then maybe microvolunteering is a solution.  

But if they really don't get involved because they think they'll be asked for more than they are prepared to give then there is a different and potentially more powerful approach we can take. 

One that changes how we plan for volunteer engagement so we don't just offer long term, open-ended time intensive opportunities.  

One that seeks to give them positive role models, to show how people just like them (not celebrities or politicians but real working people who have to balance jobs, family etc.) manage to give just some of their time to good causes.

NCVO recently published "Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures" and the following lines from a section on political engagement struck me as relevant to this issue of microvolunteering:

"The most common reasons for not participating in the 2010 general election were...a 'lack of time' or 'being too busy'.  So, whilst the internet gives us greater access to democracy than ever before, without building knowledge and fostering interest it's unlikely to make a dramatic difference."

In other words, as more and more online tools have been developed to help people engage with politics, there is still a problem of people saying they were too busy to vote.  

The cautionary parallel for microvolunteering is that if we don't tackle the root causes of people's lack of engagement with volunteering - for example, the reasons for their perceptions of time poverty in regard to volunteering - then we can develop all the whizzy tech tools we want but we won't ultimately solve the problem.

Micro becomes macro?
Secondly, nobody can yet point to any evidence that people who do microvolunteering go on to macrovolunteering, that is volunteering that would fit with most people's understanding of giving time on a more regular and/or time intensive basis.

Further on in the NCVO paper on participation there is a section on e-campaigning.  I quote:

"People primarily participate through digital channels because it is fast, easy and at their convenience.  While it can be used for deepening engagement, most organisations aren't yet putting effort into achieving this."

If this isn't happening in campaigning, an area of civil society activity that gets lots of attention and support, then I am pretty confident that it isn't happening in volunteering, the Cinderella of the sector.  That isn't to say that it won't happen, that someone won't prove that microvolunteering leads to macrovolunteering.  I hope they do.  But it does suggest that right now that evidence isn't there.

Impact - is there any?
The parallels with other forms of participation courtesy of the NCVO report continue, again via talk of e-campaigning where I was struck by this line:

"For most supporters, e-campaigning makes supporting what they believe easier and more convenient.  This ultimately gets more participation in the campaign.  What it doesn't do is guarantee and impact: this still relies on good research, strategy and implementation".

To read a lot of the writing on microvolunteering, you'd be forgiven for thinking it is some kind of magic bullet to engaging time poor people in your cause.

However, just as there is a dearth of evidence to demonstrate the alleged micro-to-macro link, so there is also a huge gap in our knowledge about whether microvolunteering actually makes any meaningful difference. 

Even if it does get more people into volunteering, microvolunteering doesn’t yet appear to guarantee that what they do has any positive impact at all.

I am not alone
And I am not alone in my scepticism about microvolunteering. 

Jayne Cravens, perhaps the world's leading authority on the use of technology in volunteerism, recently wrote two excellent blog posts about how microvolunteering is virtual volunteering and reflecting on another person's take on microvolunteering following the publication of Leonie Shanks' excellent sceptical blog, microvolunteering: fast food for the Big Society.

Final thoughts
I hope by now you have realised that I think the case for microvolunteering has been overstated and that it is seemingly becoming accepted as the next big thing without any evidence existing to show microvolunteering deserves such attention.  

I look forward to being proved wrong, I really do.

I hope someone can show that it does effectively tackle real or perceived time poverty, that it does help people catch the volunteering bug and up their commitment accordingly and that given the profile it has microvolunteering really does make a real difference to good causes.

Until then I shall sceptical about (but not anti) microvolunteering.

NB - Since my original post there has been a discussion about my thoughts on i-volunteer.  Also, Ben Rigby over at Sparked.com has published his own response.  As Ben says, "It’s really exciting to hear so many people thinking through the problem areas and possibilities of this dynamic new field" and I'm proud to be playing a part in that.