Monday, 21 May 2012

International exchange - do it!

I recently took part in one of those online meetings that reminds me how awesome the internet and associated technology is.  On the call were myself; President of Volunteer Squared, Tony Goodrow; Kathy Cahill, President elect of AL!VE; Rob Bonesteel, current Presdient of AL!VE; and Karen Buenger, President of Australasian Association for Managers of Volunteers (AAMoV).

When I started in volunteer management back in the mid-1990's we had no email, internet or Skype and  international exchange with peers was only possible with the aid of a very healthy travel budget now I can connect with colleagues in the USA, Canada and Australia in real time, working on a common document we can all see at the same time.  Of course poor Karen was up in the very early hours of Saturday morning for the call - technology is great but it can's solve the time difference we all had!

The call was convened by Kathy to discuss international links in the volunteer management community.  It was a great conversation with some fantastic ideas and great connections made.  We all agreed there was real value in trying to connect via the web the professional bodies and associations for volunteer management.  We all felt there was real value in those organisations exchanging ideas and providing support to each other.  Equally there was agreement that no one organisation should try to establish themselves as an international body for volunteer managers, hoovering up all the other associations.  Instead, we discussed potentially influencing IAVE to better reflect the importance of volunteer management in effective volunteer engagement.

I was very happy to share the great work of our own Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) with international colleagues and I hope AVM will accept the invitation offered to them to take part in future calls which will take place quarterly.

I also shared the work done by Sue Jones (of Warrington Voluntary Action) and her team of Volunteer Management Champions.  They've done fabulous things during EYV2011 and into 2012 to raise the profile of volunteer management, to support networking between volunteer managers (principally via Ivo and their Thoughtful Thursday's on Twitter) and to show that the consultants and gurus in our field don't have the monopoly on good ideas, enthusiasm and leadership for the sector.  Again, I hope Sue will join the next of Kathy's meetings in July.

I think we need to remember that despite the cuts and economic woes we face in the UK, we have much to offer the world of volunteer management, as well as much to learn.  Exchange with each other is important and so is exchange with our peers in other countries.  I know from personal experience that seeing the issues we face reflected in the mirror of a different setting and culture can be an incredibly valuable learning experience.

I will keep you posted on how the conversations with this group of international peers progress.  In the meantime, what can you do to start some conversations with volunteer managers in other countries?

Here are some quick suggestions:

  • Join one of the sister bodies to UKVPMs.  There is OzVPM for Australia & New Zealand and CyberVPM in the USA.  Also look for the various volunteer management groups set up to aid professional networking and exchange on LinkedIn.
  • Take part in a future Thoughtful Thursday and keep an eye out for posts that run into Friday.  These are normally from overseas colleagues working a different time zone to us.  Perhaps some of them would be useful connections.
  • Check out the resources available on the Energize website that signpost to volunteer management groups and networks internationally.
  • Subscribe to some of the great newsletters and journals produced internationally.  Perhaps start with the Volunteering New Zealand newsletter as they are doing some awesome work around volunteer management, and perhaps subscribe to, an international journal on volunteersim.
  • Don't forget our near neighbours in Europe.  Check out the European Volunteer Centre (CEV) and the Volunteurope networks, both of which hold events that needn't cost the earth to attend thanks to low-cost airlines.

Let us know how you get on.

Friday, 11 May 2012

We need to think differently about job substitution

In April Volunteering England, in conjunction with other strategic partners of the Office For Civil Society,  published "A Guide To Avoiding Job Substitution".  The guide aims to "help organisations ensure volunteers are not substituting for paid staff when services are being cut".

This whole issue is a thorny, complex and emotive one.  It is an issue that mainly effects voluntary and public sector organisations and it isn't a new one.  Sadly it is also an issue that many in the sector, including volunteer managers, shy away from.  Because of its emotive, complex and challenging nature, job substitution is often a topic that, if given any time at conferences and the like, provokes such strong views that few want to face the conflict it raises.

Last summer I wrote an article for The Guardian with colleague Lynn Blackadder entitled "Dispelling the myths around job substitution by volunteers".  Lynn and I wrote the piece to try and constructively help organisations facing the reality of cuts to think through the issues associated with volunteers doing work that was once done by paid staff.  Out intent was good but, as you'll see from some of the comments, we were criticised none the less.

So Volunteering England are to be commended for taking a constructive stance on the issue.  Their guidance is sound, if perhaps a bit brief given the complexity of the matter.  Their exhortation to plan well in advance of any changes from paid to volunteer 'staff' is certainly one that is not heard enough.

What I am less comfortable with in Volunteering England's document are some of the underlying assumptions about volunteering and job substitution.  These aren't unique to VE, I've come across them before, but I do think they need highlighting and perhaps challenging if we are to get the matter in perspective.  I want to pick out the three main ones.

“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.”
- Noble, Rogers and Fryar.

First up, right in the first line of the Volunteering England document, it says the issue has become critical.  Really?  Is it that serious?  However challenging an issue it is, I don't see or hear of it so often that I'd say it's critical, and I like to think I have my finger on the pulse of volunteerism.  Sure there have been some high profile cases - notably Surrey libraries - but there is also a lot of baseless scaremongering too, usually union driven and linking a modest increase in the number of people volunteering with an inevitable removal of all paid work in an area.

With the levels of paid staff growing again in the sector (after a 40% rise in the first decade of this century) and with volunteering levels largely static, the statistics suggest it isn't that big a deal.  In fact, what may be a bigger issue is volunteers being replaced by paid staff!

Second, the term job substitution doesn't help.  It implies that one volunteer can be brought in to substitute for one employee.  This almost never happens and demonstrates a misunderstanding about volunteering.  

In the article Lynn and I wrote for The Guardian we talked about job displacement and job replacement rather than job substitution:

• Displacement – when paid staff make way for (are displaced) so that volunteers can fill their roles. 
• Replacement – when work previously done by paid staff is reallocated to volunteers, i.e volunteers replace employees as the means of delivering a service.

In my view this is a much more helpful way of looking at the situation.  If paid staff are being deliberately removed so volunteers can do the work instead then I think most people would have an issue.  If, however, the paid staff are going - perhaps because of inevitable cuts - and the choice is to stop the service or bring volunteers in to pick up some of the work paid staff used to do, then I'm sure most people would recognise that the latter option is preferable to the work stopping all together.

To be fair to Volunteering England, this terminology of replacement and displacement does occur in their guidance and they do helpfully make the point that the boundaries between the two can sometimes be very thin.  But why wasn't this terminology used throughout?  Why do people who are supposed to be standing up for volunteering insist on using unhelpful 'substitution' language instead of making a clear argument about the issues?

Take the example from page one of VE's guidance:

"There are a range of scenarios that could be considered job substitution. At one extreme, an organisation may decide to cut jobs and recruit volunteers to fill the gaps. At the other, when a service has been withdrawn due to funding cuts, members of its community or service-users may volunteer themselves to run services which meet similar needs." 
"The first case is clearly a direct replacement of paid staff, and it is therefore likely that the organisation would receive objections from staff and trade unions, and find that volunteers do not want to be involved. In the second case, volunteers are, to some extent, providing services previously delivered by paid staff, but now as a new group taking over the service. This service could, however, be significantly different from the one delivered by paid staff." 

The first case, when looked at as job substitution, may appear to be a case of volunteers displacing paid staff.  But will it be one volunteer for one employee?  Very unlikely.  And what if this were a case of replacement rather than displacement?  Looking at it that way puts a different complexion on the situation.

Interestingly, the logic of the second case suggests it would be acceptable for a public service to make staff redundant, convert to a co-operative set up staffed with volunteers and that would be alright!

Third, the Volunteering England guidance states that:

One of the key principles of this charter is that the involvement of volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff.
This is common language around job substitution and it's language I detest.  It totally fails to recognise the distinct value that volunteering can bring compared to paid staff.  It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and simply subordinates it to a second-class activity next to paid work

I've worked in programmes where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of the clients that paid staff could never have, a credibility that comes from the client viewing the volunteer as someone who wants to spend time with them, not someone who is paid to spend time with them.  That is distinctive to volunteers.  It isn't about them supplementing or complementing paid staff, it is about them bringing something to the organisation that paid staff cannot.

As long as we perpetuate this second class status through our use of language, then volunteering will bee seen as nothing more than the poor cousin to paid work, and volunteer managers as poor cousins to other professionals.

In conclusion then, please be clear that I am not having a dig at Volunteering England.  As I said at the start, I commend them for publishing this guidance.  Rather, I am commenting on the philosophical basis on which their guidance and many other people's practice is based.  I am doing this to stimulate debate, to challenge thinking and, above all, to try and help us all (myself included) to do a better job of standing up for volunteering in the challenging environment we face.

So what do you think?

Do you agree?

Am I talking a load of codswallop?

Please don't be silent, join the debate by leaving a comment below.

As this is an emotive issue and one I have seen result in hurtful comments in the past, I will please ask for comments to be respectful of others views, even if they don't agree with you.  Thank you.