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. 


  1. Here, here, Mr. Jackson!! "Spot on" as you say on your side of the pond.

    Interesting (depressing? infuriating?) that most organizations will go to great lengths to salary someone to manage fund raising and money donors, but not people raising and time donors.

  2. I read this article with interest, and considered it a clever message from the Director of the Blackfriars Settlement, to internal stakeholders - introducing them to the notion of strategic volunteer management, and that this would need to be properly funded and resourced in the future...

  3. Possibly Steve, although quite why a CEO would use such a public forum to raise such a topic (with no guarantee that her staff would read it) is beyond me. It would be a very strange internal communication strategy to employ.

    No, I fear it is more a case of the experiences I've had over and over again for the last couple of decades of people talking up the importance of volunteers but failing to recognise that investment (of time, money etc.) is needed to ensure they are effectively engaged.

    And it doesn't excuse the outdated language of 'using' people, as if they were no more valuable than a photocopier.