Wednesday, 14 September 2011

European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers

Guest contributor Lewis Smith has written a helpful summary of his recent participation in a youth convention on volunteering held in Brussels between 7 and 11 September 2011.  Organised by the European Youth Forum, this event saw further work being undertaken towards a European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers.

Lewis was an important member of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry bringing considerable experience and insight as a volunteer and as volunteer at York CAB in 2008 when an issue of volunteer rights hit the headlines in the sector press.

Here is Lewis' report from the event.

To explain the venue – for those who haven't visited – the European Parliament in Brussels is an extensive
array of buildings along and adjacent to an esplanade. From one main entrance it is possible to access on
several floors a vast range of debating chambers, meeting rooms, and offices – not to mention restaurants and shops. Much time is spent finding where one is meant to be, and the conference I attended had a team of helpers just for this guiding purpose. Several major activities can co-exist: while I was there, for example, I noticed conferences on “The Forest sector contribution to bio-economy” and on “Patient reported outcomes on clinical trials of cancer”.

The youth convention was apparently the largest. I don't yet have the full list, but 27 European Countries
were represented, together with a parallel event involving 100 Chinese for whom 2011 is the “EU/China Year of Youth”. 2011 is, of course the European Year of Volunteering (and incidentally of Forests, and probably much else).

The event, organised by the European Youth Alliance, lasted five days. It was partly celebratory, with a
range of speeches from EU and Council of Europe officers, a representative from the United Nations and so
on. There was a range of workshops. It was also an advertisement for what youth volunteers undertake, with talks from those who organise international volunteering opportunities, and with a range of marquees on the esplanade showcasing volunteer activities.

Central, however, was the more political element of a two-day stakeholder conference on "A Rights-based
Approach to Volunteering" which, as the result of our membership of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry, Caroline
Aldiss and I were invited to attend. Unfortunately, Caroline was not well enough to go, so it fell to this
elderly youth to make a sole UK contribution to discussion. (The only other UK participants I came across
were three from CSV Preston, and one from CSV Lewisham. Unlike members from other countries, they did not seem to be exactly representing their organisation: was this a reflection of the UK's ambivalence towards Europe, I wonder?)

The president of the Europe Economic and Social Committee sees the EESC as being at the centre of
European policy on volunteering. They have been considering the question of a legal framework for
volunteers. Meanwhile, the European Youth Forum (organisers of this convention) have over many months
been developing a draft European Charter on the Rights and Responsibilities of Volunteers. As this had been
agreed by the Youth Forum's constituent bodies, it was not up for discussion. Rather the aim of the
conference was to produce an agreed declaration on the need for a rights-based approach to volunteering. To this end, the discussion was tightly structured so that all countries had their say and could accept the
statement as being applicable to their situation. Whether the charter itself eventually becomes a European
Charter is presumably in the hands of the EESC.

I do not yet have the final wording of the Declaration emanating from this conference.  It does, of course, have to aim at harmonization while recognising the notion of subsidiarity, and cannot be too specific or prescriptive. However, it, and the subsequent charter, could become a useful reference point for future action, especially in areas such as:

1. getting a common agreed definition of volunteering

2. improving administrative structures and regulation

3. overcoming obstacles to volunteering

4. improving research into volunteering and its social and economic effect

5. developing an appropriate legal framework.

Lewis Smith. Sep 2011

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Reflections on David Blunkett's proposed National Volunteer Programme

On 31st August, David Blunkett MP launched a report calling for the creation of a new National Volunteer Programme (NVP) as a response to the recent urban riots in the UK.  You can access his proposals here.

Such a programme of national community service for young people isn't new.  Mr Blunkett has made such suggestions in the past, thanks in no small measure to his long-standing association with Community Service Volunteers who run such volunteering placements and have done so successfully for many years.

Yet this particular proposal leaves me rather cold.  Here's why:

Opportunism and questionable evidence
Mr Blunkett's proposals smack of blatant opportunism following hot on the heels of the recent riots.

Rather than giving any evidence of why he feels the NVP approach would solve the complex problems at the root of the recent unrest, Mr Blunkett chooses to focus on the results of a YouGov poll taken shortly after the riots that said that 77% of people support compulsory service for young people (even though he states the NVP would be voluntary - mixed messages?).  Not a surprising survey result really given the flames had hardly been extinguished in British cities.

Mr Blunkett further states the case for a NVP on the basis that community service was a success in Germany and in China.  So his justification lies in a now scrapped German alternative to mandatory military service and a programme from a Communist dictatorship not know for its glowing human rights record?

Finally, in justfying his projected costs for the programme, Mr Blunkett argues they are drop in the ocean compared to the cost to the nation of youth crime and re-offending.  Yet Mr Blunkett fails to draw any link between such an NVP and evidence that it would reduce such costs to society.  If any organisation submitted such a proposal to a funder on so dodgy an evidence base it would be immediately rejected.

So much for evidence based policy making when one can just ride the crest of opportunistic public opinion.

Yet more money for young people's volunteering
The last government spent £117million on v.  This government is spending a small fortune on National Citizen's Service.  Now we are being encouraged to spend £950million (just short of £1billion) on Mr Blunkett's NVP (total direct and indirect costs based on 100,000 volunteers as per the figures in the paper) with no evidence that it will solve the problems that cause the riots.

Don't get me wrong, young people's volunteering is an important issue.  v have done some great work as did Millennium Volunteers before them.  And, with a fraction of the budget, Orange RockCorps do fabulous work engaging young people in volunteering.  Yet young people are a shrinking proportion of this country's ageing population and a group that the UK will reply upon to pay the taxes needed to meet the pension deficit, the health and social care deficit, the national debt repayments etc..  When exactly will they have time to volunteer?

Mr Blunkett acknowledges that young people are most likely to volunteer and states that 32% of young people aged 16-25 volunteer but in "limited" ways.  Their committment is limited because they live busy and complex lives like the rest of us.  Perhaps the money might be better spent engaging the over 25's, who volunteer much less, to engage in their communities, alongside young people.

Ah, but Mr Blunkett thinks the NVP important because young people were the majority of the rioters.  It is clearly aimed at getting our feckless youth off the streets for nine months whilst they serve society, thus becoming better citizens.  In that case, I ask again - where is the evidence that nearly a £billion of money spent on the proposed NVP would solve the problems that led to the riots?

Involvement of people knowledgeable about volunteering
As with many such proposals warm words are used about working with existing "major volunteer organisations" to make Mr Blunkett's ideas a reality.

Yet his proposed operation board seems to exclude agencies with expertise in volunteering in favour of health, crime prevention etc..

There is no explanation of the basis for the proposed £2,500 per participant indirect costs, other than it is calculated from a three year old CSV leaflet.  Would this make involvement in the scheme financially viable? Certainly £2,500 seems rather low if an organisation is to meet the management costs of a full time volunteer for nine months (although I accept that is a gut instinct judgement rather than one based on any evidence).

And where is the emphasis on helping and supporting organisations to provide nine-month, full time volunteering placements for young people?  Is that what organisations want and need in terms of volunteer engagement?  It doesn't seem to be the case for the British Red Cross.

I suspect that even if this idea had an evidence base that supported it as a sensible use of money - and I contend that it doesn't - the implementation issues have yet to be fully considered.

Legislative and ethical barriers
Finally, there are the concerns that will be raised by many in the volunteering movement because whilst this appears to be a voluntary scheme participants would be paid a £3,000 stipend, £1,000 for travel expenses, receive £500 of citizenship training and have their efforts rewarded/incentivised through receipt of a passport that would offer financial and other benefits.

Does this make the scheme volunteering or low paid work?  What might be the implications under employment legislation and national minimum wage if a NVP participant felt aggrieved at their treatment and took their volunteer involving organisation to a tribunal?  Would volunteering organisations want to involve people from a scheme that so stretched the understanding of volunteering?

These are some of my initial thoughts on Mr Blunkett's proposals.  Whilst I am sure they are well intentioned they are, in my view, opportunistic, ill considered and not fully thought through.

What do you think?  Is Mr Blunkett onto something or barking up the wrong tree?  Please do share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

So, where is volunteer management?

It has just been brought to my attention that provider of news to the voluntary sector, Civil Society, has launched a new jobs section.

This is just a quick blog post to express my displeasure that this new service does not have a category for the function of volunteer leadership and management.  HR is there.  So is fundraising.  So why not volunteer management?

I have written recently on the growing importance of volunteering to organisations that are feeling the pressure of funding cuts.  Volunteer management is of growing importance to many organisations and is starting to get the attention it deserves from funders, government and others as they realise that effective volunteer engagement doesn't just happen magically but needs leading and resourcing.

So come on Civil Society, correct this error and add in a category for volunteer management and join those parts of the the sector press that realise the importance of volunteer management and provide a searchable category on their jobs site - good on you Third Sector!

Shortly after this blog post went live, Civil Society tweeted me the email address of a person on their staff to contact in order to suggest changes to their service.  As the jobs service is new they are keen to hear from interested parties as to how it could be improved.

This is what I have sent them:

"I simply think that it would be wise for you to include a heading, some thing like volunteer leadership and management, within the new jobs service Civil Society are providing. Such roles are increasingly important to voluntary organisations as they have to rely less on donated funds and more on donated time and so need skills professional volunteer managers to help them in this."

"Sadly there are too few job services for the voluntary and community sector where people interested in volunteer management roles can quickly and easily find appropriate vacancies. Were you to add such a category to your service it would be a valuable addition."