Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Volunteer rights – a long and winding road

As some of you may know I also write a monthly blog for Third Sector magazine online. Last June, in only my second blog post for them, I questioned whether the time was right for the sector to be addressing the issue of volunteer rights.  My posting was borne out of a frustration that the momentum built up by the Volunteer Rights Inquiry had seemed to stall somewhat.

Thankfully any drop in profile for the results of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry had only been a temporary blip and there are now more than 100 organisations who have pledged their support for the Inquiry’s 3R promise.

Yet still we read allegations of poor treatment of volunteers.  In November we had further reports into Jon Danzig’s dispute with the Pituitary Foundation and now we have the tale of Gillian Brocklehurst who, after being dismissed from Cylch ConwyDistrict Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) after four years, had to bring a claim under the Data Protection Act to be allowed access to a report into her dismissal.
Gillian Brocklehurst
Gillian Brocklehurst

As with many other cases, this one centres around a CAB.  I don’t for one second think CAB consistently treat their volunteers poorly.  I do, however, think that their volunteers are more aware of their ‘rights’ and so feel more confident in bringing claims of unfair dismissal which is why we see so many

Citizens Advice are to be congratulated for conducting an investigation into the circumstances of Gillian’s dismissal.  Yet the latest developments in the story show that this investigation was flawed; that processes hadn't been followed; that communication was poor; and that evidence existed to suggest bullying and harassment had taken place.  

As was often seen during the work of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry, it appears the person who originally dismissed Gillian was a trustee – in this case Phil Ward, the chair of the CAB.  Whilst these situations can be blamed on poor volunteer management, the Volunteer Rights Inquiry found that sadly they are all too often due to poor governance, behaviour and management by senior staff and board members. 

So what can we learn from this and other similar situations?  

I think there are three things:

  • These are complex and emotive issues, made more so by a lack of clear legal status for volunteers and by the strong passions and emotions that often surround such cases.  To the volunteer, volunteering can be a deeply personal act and to be dismissed can be incredibly hurtful.  However justified an organisation may feel it is in taking the step to dismiss a volunteer, it must always be handled sensitively.
  •  In this day and age volunteers, just like anyone else, have very easy access to a variety of means to share their experiences far and wide.  Couple that with a media who much prefer negative stories to positive ones and the chances of your organisation being cast in a bad light greatly increase.  So if you must dismiss a volunteer, be completely open, fair and honest about why and always use it as an act of last resort.
  • We need to stop seeing such situations as problems for volunteer managers.  If senior managers and trustees are often a cause of these problems then they need to take their role in running a successful volunteer programme much more seriously.  We accept the need to develop their knowledge and skills around fundraising, why not volunteering too?

Whether these lessons are learnt or not, I fear quick solutions are not going to be forthcoming.  There is a long and winding road ahead of us with much distance still to be travelled, and many more to join the journey, before volunteers can be assured that they will not become the next Jon Danzig or Gillian Brocklehurst.

1 comment:

  1. On the 6th September the manager sent me a text (out of the blue) telling me (abruptly) that my Voluntary services were no longer required as my approach with the club did not fit in with theirs.

    While I understand that volunteers have zero working rights, I do firmly believe that volunteers should be treated with dignity and respect, I was after all working for free and for the good of the players and success of the club in general.

    As soon as I started, myself and the person who acts as a signatory for the club set to work on getting into place a number of national and local sports grants to lift the club in an effort to drastically improve there dire financial situation.

    Player fees
    I felt were high, the various sports grants would have meant the players were not tapped for money at every opportunity. Keeping the fees low or removing them completely would open up the sport to many more people. The current management seem perfectly content with a structure that clearly alienates some current players and ‘puts off’ many people from entering the sport.

    Public awareness
    Not many people on the Isle of Wight were even aware that the ‘Tigers’ exists, let alone as a competitive sports club which is open for everyone to watch. This is due to what I can only term as agonisingly poor marketing, I set to work on a marketing campaign to increase spectator numbers and thus improve the financial situation of the club - in context, the arena holds 1000 people, they currently have 75 fans.

    At personal expense I had started the process of building marketing campaign ranging from flyers, posters and even a friendlier site with the features many people come to expect, such as buying tickets online, subscribing to newsletter and engaging properly with the general public in order to highlight ice hockey as a great sport.

    The official website is confusing with way too much going on, this detracts from gaining higher viewer figures and thus they take less income, less income is leading to higher fees for the players.
    So, I started developing a cleaner website and one which would allow fans to navigate with ease, buying tickets through to watching video and reading club related news.

    Ticket sales
    After a team meeting it was decided that online ticket sales were a good idea, so i set to work on making this happen, this was to streamline and simplify the entire process for the fans, making the prices consistent all round, therefore enhancing the fans experiences and ensuring the club can do some basic financial planning…

    So, i went far and above the call of voluntary duty, yet the club simply decided without proper explanation to get rid of me.

    This has put me off from volunteering in the future. I have emailed the governing bodies ref their standards of treatment with volunteers and the result so far has been negative.