Monday, 6 June 2011

Thoughts on the Giving White Paper

Within the last couple of weeks the coalition government in England has published its Giving White Paper.  This follows on from the Giving Green Paper and associated essays which was launched just after Christmas 2010, and has been developed in light of the 400 responses government received to that earlier document.


What follows are some reflections on the key themes and issues arising from the Giving White Paper with a particular focus on the volunteering elements.  It is a bit of a lengthy post so here goes:


General observations

  • Following on from the earlier Green Paper, it is good to see some recognition that the quality of the giving experience is a key factor in getting people to give. The flip side to this of course is that if giving isn't rewarding to the potential giver then they will be put off giving and government acknowledge this.

    In volunteering terms this means motivating and meaningful roles for volunteers, not just make work or the stuff nobody else wants to do.  
    Hopefully this will switch organisations on to the importance of designing good quality roles for volunteers and make funders (including government) more likely to resource volunteer management to deliver great experiences and not simply pursue a 'bums on seats' approach to endless recruitment that they seem to so often require.

  • It is also good to see a document highlight the potential of Baby Boomers.  I think this generation has had little attention from the UK volunteering movement in recent years, perhaps a consequence of the disaster that was Experience Corps in the mid-noughties.  Yet Baby Boomers are going to be a huge potential pool of volunteers in future, but only if organisations adapt their volunteering offer to meet their needs.  Baby Boomers are very different from their parents whose volunteer efforts have shored up many an organisation that has been slow to develop their volunteering offer to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.  The USA, Canada and Australia are well ahead of us on this and we have some catching up to do.

  • The commitment of £40m of funding for volunteering and social action over two years is good.  It won't make up for the funding that is being lost through the current cuts but used wisely it could help to steer people in the right direction for the future.  However, I do wonder if government will really be able to assess impact of these funds in the two year window they have given themselves before deciding how further funds will be invested.

  • Unsurprisingly the issue of barriers to giving crop up again.  Yet all the barriers mentioned are external such as CRB checks and benefits rules (or perhaps more accurately the way they are interpreted by benefit advisers).  There is little or no focus on the barriers organisations themselves establish that get in the way of people giving, like inappropriate use of CRB checks, bureaucratic systems and processes, lack of investment in good volunteer leadership and management etc..  Maybe that's because government are focusing on things they think they can change.  Yet this could be an area that government could help drive change in, as they are doing with other aspects of the White Paper.

  • I was intrigued by the short section on "Giving CVs".  These essentially seem to be a means for volunteers to have people rate their efforts, almost like eBay feedback.  The suggestion is that such systems could help with volunteer screening, reducing the need for things like references.  There isn't a lot of information on this in the document so I reserve judgement for now but I do see some big problems with this and suspect it will be met with great scepticism by many volunteer managers, especially in our risk averse culture.

  • I like the Community First model highlighted through the example from Seattle.  The essence of this is establishing systems of support that don't just focus on funding but leverage a range of resources to enable organisations to fulfil their goals.  I am especially attracted to this because of the potential for volunteering in such models and because I am on record as suggesting leaders in the voluntary and community sector are too money oriented and need to change to meet the challenges of the new financially restricted reality we live in.

  • It is encouraging to read of the proposed Giving Summit and I look forward to more details.



Volunteer leadership & management

  • It is very encouraging to see government acknowledge the value and importance of volunteer management as a key element to successfully increasing the number of volunteers and impact of volunteering.  This continues a trend that really started in policy terms as a consequence of the Commission of the Future of Volunteering who reported in early 2008.

    Hopefully this emphasis will lead to further funding for volunteer leadership and management from government and encouragement for other funders to invest in this critical area of organisation capacity.

  • On a couple of occasions the White Paper talks about investing in the training and development of voluntary volunteer managers.  This is good, more volunteers should be involved in the management of volunteer programmes.  But where is the emphasis on paid volunteer managers?  Are they to get nothing?

  • There are also a couple of occasions where the document talks about retired civil servants being trained up as volunteer managers.  Interesting.  Why?  What leads government to think civil servants are going to make good volunteer managers?  I'm sure some will but the idea as presented lacks any substance and thus credibility.
  • In respect of these last two points it is worth reading a recent blog from Jayne Cravens and the June Hot Topic from Energize.  Both contain observations on the problem in the USA of increased use of AmeriCorps volunteers a voluntary volunteer managers and the need to do this alongside 'professional' volunteer management rather than instead of it.

  • There is a section in the White Paper encouraging the development and promotion of more 'self managed' volunteer opportunities.  This seems to suggest that a solution to some of the problems facing volunteers is giving people the power to select what they do and when they do it.  Government advocates concepts like Silvers of Time to aid this.

    On one level I totally agree.  Volunteers need to have more say in what they do and when it is done.  Leaders of volunteer need to adapt to this and embrace it, striking a balance between the needs of the volunteer, the organisation and the client.  Yet I also have problems with that government proposes.

    First of all such self-managed volunteering is not new.  Young people's projects have been doing it for ages, in fact they have been even more self-managed as often the young people have developed the projects themselves, not just chosen when to volunteer for them.  This was a major theme of the Russell Commission and subsequently of the work of v.

    What is perhaps new is facilitating volunteers to have more control over when they give via technology.  Even that isn't that new because people like New York Cares have been doing it for years and existing volunteer management software like Volunteer Squared provides a means for self-managed volunteering.

    My second concern is that ideas like Slivers only help people take control of their volunteering if there are opportunities available in organisations that have embraced the idea of self-managed volunteering.  A new website or tech tool like Slivers provides an interface but it isn't a short cut to good volunteer management and opportunity development.



Infrastructure

  • I like the language used of "Providing better support for those offering and managing opportunities to give".  This is far more engaging than abstract concepts such as infrastructure, especially when most people think of bridges, roads, railways etc. when they hear that word.

    My only hesitation with the phrase is that it is very organisationally focused.  Volunteering infrastructure has historically supported Volunteer Involving Organisations and volunteers.  This phrase, despite its strengths, omits the volunteer element which is essential for that is a key strength of bodies like Volunteer Centres whose person centred approach gets more people from disadvantaged groups volunteering than almost any other form of volunteer recruitment.

  • Which leads me to my next point and it is a concern.  Aside from the funding available for infrastructure now being £30m not the £42m stated in the Green Paper, it is also now aimed at all infrastructure not just volunteering infrastructure.  This means Councils for Voluntary Service (CVS) can access it not just bodies like Volunteer Centres (VC).  There is also a stated desire to see better integration locally, which to me suggests the agenda is to driver mergers between local infrastructure bodies.
    I spent six years working with local infrastructure bodies and have come across many good and bad CVS and VCs.  I am not therefore opposed to greater collaboration and or merger in principle.  However, evidence from Volunteering England's Annual Return of Volunteer Centres consistently shows that independent VCs are better funded, deliver a wider range of services and more consistently deliver on their six core functions than VCs who are part of a CVS.

    Furthermore, VCs exist to serve volunteering not just the voluntary sector.  That means they should (and many do) work with public and private sector bodies too.  CVS don't generally do this, focusing their development work on a predominantly or exclusively voluntary sector audience.  

    And experience shows that CVS can be all to quick to cut VC funding when times get tough.

    So I hope the changes between the Green and White Papers don't result in ill thought through mergers because 'government say so' or because funding is tight so it becomes the only course of action.  Many in both CVS and VC network will oppose this, as will other local infrastructure providers.  This agenda has suffered from some of the worst sector politicking I've ever seen in the past and I hope that stops.  Non-partisan leadership by the likes of NAVCA and Volunteering England is needed to ensure we end up with a fit-for-purpose local infrastructure, not just one that is cost-effective. 

  • I am pleased to see government funding YouthNet to further develop and opening up the data on the Do-It national volunteering database.   Whilst I do have reservations about the wisdom of putting all our volunteering eggs in one online database basket, Do-It does have a good track record and a great team behind it.  

    Some Volunteer Centres will baulk at the idea though and this needs careful management.  VCs provide the majority of opportunities on Do-It but mistakenly think that these opportunities are theirs.  They aren't.  They belong to the organisations who need the volunteers and they don't care where they get their volunteers so long as they get them.
    Where the VCs have a point is that if they are doing all the hard work getting the opportunities onto Do-It, is becomes rather galling if someone else fills that vacancy for a volunteer, especially when many VCs are funded to place volunteers.  So it is even more worrying to see that government want Do-It to open their books to profit making bodies like Slivers of Time.  I have much more sympathy with VCs if their hard work is going to help people make money whilst they suffer more and more cuts and under-investment.

    Volunteering England, YouthNet and government have got their work cut out on this one.



Technology and volunteering

  • As with the Green Paper, government seems to have bought the argument that a big barrier to volunteering is lack of spare time and so expresses interest in concepts like  microvolunteering.  I have recently blogged some of my concerns on this so won't repeat them here.

    To their credit, however, government do seem to get that a key way to get more people to give it to given them role models.  What has potential here is not celebrities or ministers volunteering but real people, people like you and me.  I strongly believe that if someone who claims they don't have the time to volunteer can see someone like them finding the time to give time and be helped to find a great opportunity to give themselves then that will be more powerful than a new website or gadget.
  • One of the worrying things about the pursuit of technological solutions is that it assume people have the tech to access all these new ways to access volunteering.  Not everyone owns an iPhone or iPad, which seems to be the most common app platform for these things.  The social media professionals who develop these things may well have all the latest tech but not everybody does.  What about the rest of us?  And what about all those who can't afford £35-£40 a month to have the latest mobile communications gadget?

    Don't get me wrong, I love technology but the danger is that a constant focus on whizzy new tech solutions and the resulting shift of the focus in volunteering terms onto these new ideas could create more barriers than it removes.

  • On a few occasions the White Paper talks of new technology and social media giving people new opportunities to give or creating attractive placements.  This is very worrying because by and large they don't.  Technology, websites and social media help people find out about and engage in opportunities to give their time but they rarely create the opportunities.  To buy into the argument that they do suggests that anyone can build a website or app and people will have a rewarding giving experience.
    As Oxfam said in response to the Green Paper which said "...there is a danger that seeking technological solutions [to booting volunteering] may lead to a focus on mechanisms rather than the quality of the volunteering opportunity.  The first priority should be to ensure that meaningful opportunities are a priority."  

    I worry that Oxfam's excellent point hasn't been truly grasped by government yet and hope it will be, lest they invest £millions in new ideas that look sexy but deliver little.

So there you go, for what they are worth those are my initial thoughts and observations on the Giving White paper.  Government rightly acknowledges that this is the start of a process and discussion about how we realise a real change in giving in the UK.  So I hope my thoughts add to this in some small way and I look forward to hearing your ideas and responses via the comments section below.

See you at the Giving Summit. 

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