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:


Definition

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?

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