Monday, 26 March 2012

Using the budget to encourage volunteering

The UK government debated its annual finance bill on 21st March (commonly referred to as Budget Day).  Amongst the initiatives and changes outlined by The Chancellor, George Osborne, was a cap on income tax reliefs.

In practice this would mean government would limit the amount of tax relief an individual can claim in any year to a quarter of their income or £50,000, whichever is higher, from April 2013.  The intention of the policy change is to stop the well-off dodging tax via making charitable donations.

The response of the voluntary sector has been swift and firm with six sector umbrella bodies immediately writing to The Chancellor expressing concern about the impact this change would have on the propensity of the wealthy to make major gifts to good causes.  According to Third Sector Online, the letter states that:

"There is a clear danger that this measure could have the unintended consequence of disincentivising the donation of large gifts to charity. Charities rely heavily on major philanthropy of this kind, and any reduction in giving could be devastating for many vulnerable people who rely on our services. The measure is also clearly at odds with the government’s commendable efforts to promote philanthropy, sending the wrong signal to major donors who have thus far been encouraged to give more."

Indeed some sector leaders are arguing that the Giving Summit planned for May 2012 is "in danger" as a result of this change in policy.

Put aside for a moment the question of whether the voluntary sector should be lobbying against a policy that limits tax breaks for the wealthy in order to help the public purse and thus support those who are less well off.

Put aside the uncomfortable feeling that the self-interest of those organisations who gain from the big gifts of the wealthy seems to be dictating a policy that is being pursued in the name of the whole sector, a sector where relatively few organisations gain from such gifts but many are working hard at the coal face to help fight the effects of inequality.

Put aside the fact that yet again the sector's leaders seem totally fixated on cold hard cash as the only resource with which the sector can do anything, to the extent that panic ensues when they risk losing some of it.

Instead, consider whether there could be an opportunity here.  Over on Volunteering England's Dialogue App I've made a suggestion for how the sector could be a bit creative with this financial policy change from the government.

My idea is that some of the income tax relief for the well-off are restored in return for time given. So instead of the relief being capped at a quarter of their annual income or £50,000, whichever is higher, if someone gave £10,000 of their time to a good cause this cap could be raised accordingly.

I'm the first to admit that I'm no tax expert and so there may well be issues with this suggestion that I am unaware of.  Equally, there would need to be agreement about the value accorded to someone's time, a system for recording and verifying the hours they volunteer and some way of ensuring their time is donated by them to genuine good causes.

But those problems don't seem insurmountable and consider the benefits.

Such a scheme could:

  • Help maintain major gifts be restoring higher level of relief for those most likely to give big gifts
  • Draw in additional human resource to work on social problems as these people give their time as volunteers
  • Help to change the mindset of the sector that cash isn't the only way to get things done
  • Help promote new models of 'skilled' pro-bono style volunteering as the people likely to be affected by the proposed changes to income tax relief are wealthy business people who may well have considerable professional expertise to share through their volunteering.

Surely it is worth some consideration?

Ami Bloomer at Give What You're Good At has flagged two of her blog posts that link quite nicely with my proposal.  The first outlines the arguments for and against tax relief for pro bono (volunteering) work and the other argues that skilled volunteering is a great way of engaging major donors and encouraging them to give.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The trouble with criminal record checks

It is the issue that simply won't go away.  Whenever volunteering gets mentioned it seems three little letters won't be far away.  They are there in media coverage and an ever present source of questions whenever I run workshops, training sessions and sit on conference panel discussions.

I give you CRB, or criminal record checks.  That's what they get called in England although they have different names in different parts of the UK and indeed other countries around the world.

Early on in my volunteer management career I worked for Barnardo's, one of the oldest and biggest UK charities working with vulnerable children and young people.  At the time only a small number of organisations had access to criminal record checks so the vast majority of volunteer involving organisations - without access to police checks as we called them then - applied a number of screening techniques in order to manage the risk to their clients from involving 'unsuitable' volunteers.

Within the context of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions Order 1975) these included:

Application forms - they paid close attention to the information prospective volunteer supplied, looking for inconsistencies, gaps in employment records etc..

References - considerable care was taken to secure at least two good quality references.  Usually this involved one professional reference and one personal reference, the evidence from programmes like Big Brothers and Sisters in the USA suggesting that personal referees were much more likely to reveal details of someone's past that might prevent them from volunteering then previous litigation-fearful employers.

Canadian screening expert Linda Graff often argues that references are a hugely under-used tool in screening and her book "Beyond Police Checks" is still an essential read in the field of volunteer screening and is highly recommended.

Interviews - ideally done by two people, interviews (whether you call them that or not) we an essential  screening tool.

Supervision - ongoing regular supervision to check on the volunteer, what they are doing, what they are struggling with, what support they need etc. and to address issues that arise, whether formally or informally.

Appraisals - whether annually or more frequent, formal check points in addition to ongoing supervision were important to review the volunteers' place and role within the organisation and to flag issues if they have arisen since the last meeting.

User and volunteer feedback - looking for the views and opinions of service users and other volunteers, both on the whole programme and on the work of other volunteers.  This was/is formally enshrined by some in whistle-blower policies.

Above all organisations - whether they had access to police checks or not - employed a suite of tools to screen people wanting to volunteer with vulnerable clients.  They didn't do one thing, they followed a screening process, an ongoing process that didn't stop when recruitment finished.  Critically they spent time considering all these tools in the round to look for clues as to somebody not being a suitable volunteer.

In training I often quote an example of the importance of screening being a process and one where the different elements inter-relate and so need checking against each other (names have been changed to protect the possibly guilty).

I was once cross checking the police check application and volunteer application forms of a potential volunteer at Barnardo's.  All looked good at first glance.  Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that on one form the surname was Brown and on the other Browne.  The dates of birth were also out by a day.  We followed up with the person concerned and heard nothing more from them.  Now, they might have been totally innocent and never responded because they'd changed their minds about volunteering.  But, what if?  What if they had been deliberately trying to sneak through the system with misinformation, hoping nobody would spot it?  Without that close attention to detail cross-referencing the two forms we might never have spotted a potential risk to our clients.

So that's how things used to be.

Then, in 1997, the Police Act came into force.  Part five of the act provided the legislative basis for the Criminal Records Bureau to be formed and the introduction of CRB checks to a much wider range of organisations.  The CRB set out guidance and code of practice on checking volunteers that explained who could be checked and at what level.  These documents were seen as important both to ensure that checking was only done where appropriate and necessary and to set it within a proper context of the wider screening systems organisations should employ.

Yet despite this guidance, some organisations still seem to conduct checks on everyone who volunteers, not just those who should be checked because of their access to vulnerable people.  See this excellent blog from Jamie Ward-Smith on i-volunteer that sums up many people's experience with CRB checks.

Many organisations  appear to behave as if a clearance from the CRB is a guarantee that volunteers pose no risk to clients.  Many organisations seemingly fail to properly employ a wide range of screening techniques and seek to cross reference the information prospective volunteers supply in order to spot irregularities and possible causes for concern.

Instead we have a narrative around and a practice focus on volunteer screening that is fixated with CRB checks, almost always to the exclusion of any other screening method.  Don't get me wrong, CRB checks can be an important screening tool and we should have access to them, but their value is only realised if they are used as part of a comprehensive screening process, not if they are the screening process.

Yes there are organisations out there doing great work screening volunteers well and effectively safeguarding vulnerable people.  Sadly however, the overall picture of the last fifteen years appears to be one of more and more reliance on CRB checks.  Consequently I fear we've lost many of the skills and subtle understanding needed to properly safeguard vulnerable people as we've become more reliant on a single check that is out of date as soon as it is conducted.

In short, the trouble with CRB checks is that: we have become worryingly reliant upon them; we gain a false sense of safety by conducting them; and consequently we are less safe because of them.

What do you think?

Do you agree with me?

Have you got tips or stories to share on effective volunteer screening that goes beyond CRB?

Whilst the context of this post on CRB checks is very much my experiences in England I hope those of you from other countries will see your own parallels with the issues I raise.

Please use the comments facility below to share your own thoughts or experiences of criminal record checking, whether you agree with me or not.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Is all work experience equal?

Recently there has been lots of coverage of the government’s controversial efforts to give unemployed people unpaid work experience placements with private sector firms and the associated threat of loss of benefits if they fail to take part. 

The issue first came to my attention the voluntary and community sector press with the tale of Cait Reilly.  Cait was volunteering with a local museum as she wanted to find paid employment in that sector.  However she was told by her local Job Centre Plus to take part in a four week full time programme, including two weeks unpaid work at discount retailer Poundland, or face losing her benefits.  Responding to the story in Third Sector online, A Department for work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson said:

“Working in retail is perfectly good experience for a career in a museum. There are very similar transferable skills involved.  It is simply absurd to suggest that we should not be providing this support and effectively leaving people at home doing nothing."

The story then got picked up by The Guardian newspaper as private sector firms and then charities started to pull out of such work experience schemes in the face of mounting opposition. In the face of this opposition the government recently changed its policy and removed the threat of benefit withdrawal from those refusing to take part in or dropping out of such programmes.

From a volunteering perspective there have, to my mind, been two issues with the government’s schemes. 

The first is the benefit sanction that people were threatened with.  Forcing people to volunteer or lose benefits is not ethical, regardless of which sector they are forced to work in.  Furthermore such practice breaches many agreements between government and the volunteering movement.  This sanction has now been removed so the issue is less of a concern.

However, throughout the ongoing saga, DWP, ministers and MPs have maintained that placing the unemployed into such work experience programmes is important if people are to find new work.  And that leads me to my second issue, the apparent presumption that only by taking part in these government endorsed schemes can people get good work experience. 

Whether it has been MPs, ministers or civil servants talking about the work experience schemes, all have been claiming that such programmes give people essential skills for the workplace. 

Look again at the DWP quote above relating to the Cait Reilly story.  According to the DWP spokesperson, unpaid work experience in retail is perfectly good experience for paid work in a museum.  I’m no expert on museum work but surely volunteering in a museum is even better experience for paid work in a museum?  Why on earth would you force someone doing volunteering that has such a clear link to their desired field of employment to stack shelves for two weeks?

What worries me about all these programmes is an apparent blind spot by government to the potential of volunteering to help people develop work skills.  Whether those skills are specific to a particular role or the so-called ‘softer’ skills (timekeeping, team work etc.) there is much evidence of volunteering helping to make people more employable as a basic search of the Institute for Volunteering Research evidence bank will demonstrate.

We may have won the battle over unfair sanctions if people don’t ‘volunteer’ but the bigger fight is, I fear, still ahead.  All of us working in the volunteering movement need to be ensuring that these work experience programmes don’t become the only valid way for people to gain employability skills.  We need to ensure that Job Centre Plus advisors, DWP officials, MPs and ministers are challenged to recognise the valuable contribution volunteering makes to building peoples’ skills and confidence for employment.

If we don’t then volunteering will become increasingly sidelined as a poor substitute for what are seen as more ‘valid’ forms of work experience.