Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Three lessons for volunteer programmes from customer service

Dan, a colleague of mine at the volunteer management software provider, Better Impact, recently recommended a new blog to follow called "Win The Customer". Initial impressions have been good so I've added it to my already lengthy list of blogs I follow.

Here I want to share one early highlight, a post entitled Three Retail Experience Trends That Will Change Your Service Approach.

I highly recommend reading this article before you go any further with my post as I want to highlight three parallels for leaders and manages of volunteers. So, off you go and I'll see you back here in a couple of minutes.


Right, I hope you liked that. Here's my thoughts on three applications of those lessons for us in our work with volunteers.

The Rise Of The Mobile Wallet
In retail the use of mobile devices as a method of payment seems to be growing. How is is or could this be manifesting in volunteer management?

Well, online searching for volunteer opportunities is nothing new. The soon to be re-launched Do-It is a teenager already and similar sites exist across the globe.

What is less common is online signup to volunteering. So many organisations, if they even have a good webpage dedicated to their volunteer programme, still ask people to download a form and submit it via email in order to apply to become a volunteer. 

The aforementioned Better Impact system enables volunteers to fill in a form online and apply directly into the organisations volunteer database. No more print and send. What’s more volunteers can do this, and manage there profile, sign up for shifts, log hours etc., via a smartphone.

Mobile use of the web is skyrocketing and the expectations we all have to manage our lives on to the go - from banking to online shopping - continue to grow too. Volunteering is not immune. Volunteers want to manage their volunteering online and not being able to do so could increasingly turn people off your organisation.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned things like paying you volunteers’ expenses via mobile payment systems like PingIt or people applying to volunteer direct from Facebook with their applications populated automatically with the data Facebook holds on them (which is probably more than they even know about themselves!). 

Brick-And-Mortar Gets Interactive
The point the original article makes here is how can we enhance a shopper’s experience in store via mobile technology? For example, wan we give them free wifi and augmented reality apps so they can virtually try on that item of clothing and see all the different colour choices available, perhaps including those not available inshore?

In volunteer management terms I think there are two ways we can consider this trend, both relate to that period between the volunteer signing up and actually starting their role, a period that can be drawn out if intensive screening is involved.

First, how can we use online and mobile technology to provide or enhance the induction and any training we offer. Could volunteers take a virtual tour of the site via a YouTube video? Is there online learning material specific to their role that they could be working through? 

Second, if the vetting period takes a while, are there roles volunteers could be doing online that would be suitable for them until vetting is completed? What needs doing that could be packaged as a short-term, bite-sized opportunity that could lend itself to mobile? For example, monitoring the social media feeds of similar organisations to broaden the new volunteers awareness of the issues they will deal with (whilst at the same time perhaps gaining insights into ‘competitor’ behaviour for you).

Harnessing The Power Of Social Shopping
We’re all used to rating our shopping experiences online. Amazon has provided that facility for years and whether its a war and peace review or one of those “quick delivery” two-worders, chances are most of you reading this have rated something somewhere online.

I remember the idea being mooted a few years back that volunteers should be able to rate their experiences online on sites like Do-It. The reaction from Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Involving Organisations was less than enthusiastic. Perhaps because the Volunteer Involving Organisations involved are all too aware that what they offer volunteers is far from satisfactory and their ratings would reflect this?

Social media has opened this up regardless of whether a formal rating system exists. If someone has a bad time volunteering with you they can be straight onto their social network of choice ensuring their friends, family and colleagues don’t repeat their mistake.

Conversely, however, give volunteers a great time and they may be all to happy (perhaps with a little encouragement) to share their positivity about your agency with their networks.

Erik Qualman, in his book Socialnomics, refers to this as both ‘Word of mouth to world of mouth” and “Word of mouth on digital steroids”. In other words, social media is not to be feared so much as embraced as a key way to enhance the form of recruitment that consistently comes out as most effective around the world - word of mouth or personal recommendation.

You can do simple things like give your volunteers a hashtag to put on any posts they make about their volunteering, or give them some simple guidelines on what is appropriate for them to post on Instagram or Pinterest when they are volunteering?

So, there you have it, my three lessons for volunteer programmes from customer service, or at least adapted from the blog Dan shared with me.

What lessons can you share from customer service for volunteer programmes?

Specifically, what ideas do you have for how the customer service experience we give our volunteers can be enhanced via online and mobile technology?

Finally, if you’ve embraced online and mobile in this way, what did you do and what did you learn?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Five things I'd like to say about calculating the economic value of volunteering

Since incorporating Volunteering England into their work, NCVO have started producing some good blogs on volunteering. These are mainly written by their Executive Director of Volunteering & Development, Justin Davis Smith (former Volunteering England CEO) but good material from other authors appears too.

Just a few weeks ago a new blog post appeared entitled "Five things you need to know about calculating the economic value of volunteering". This post summarised a paper from Jakub Dostál and Marek Vyskočil of Masaryk University’s Department of public economy and administration which won the prize for best paper in the New Researcher’s Session at the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference 2014.

In the post there are five tips for "confronting economic calculations in your work or in someone else’s". As I read the article I started to feel downhearted yet again at the lack of awareness of the dangers of perpetuating the myth of economic value of volunteering and the absence of vision or ambition to do any better.

I'm not going to attempt a full analysis of the pitfalls of attributing notional wage 'values' to the work of volunteers. My American colleague Jayne Cravens has written an excellent commentary on the problems of valuing volunteers in economic terms. I've also written an analysis of the well intentioned by flawed efforts by the International Labor (sic) Organisation (ILO) to capture economic measures of volunteering globally in their Manual on the Measurement of Volunteer Work. If you are interested in exploring this topic in more depth then both those sources are good starting points.

What I do want to do is provide five responses to the five things the NCVO blog (author unknown) tells us we need to know about measuring the economic value of volunteering.

1 - Remember it's an estimate
Yes it is, but everyone from the ILO down seems so wedded to it that almost no energy is being invested in coming up with something better. Economic value is measured because it's easy, not because it's the best thing to measure. That speaks volumes about the actual value placed on the contribution of volunteer to society when so little effort is willing to be spent trying to get more accurate.

2 - Estimates rely significantly on the type of replacement wage
I absolutely agree with the author here. They flag up why economic measures of volunteering are not only an estimate but a poor one at that. The ILO manual does try to standardise this but in practice that's an approach that is far more complex and involved than people are usually willing to be. Remember, this is an area where we can't even be bothered to develop a decent measure, just the easiest estimate.

3 - There are still good reasons for using the concept of replacement wages
No there aren't!

First of all, economic measures focus on wage replacement methodologies (i.e. attributing a notional wage value to the work done by volunteers) don't actually measure an output or on outcome. Rather, they attribute a financial amount to an input, namely the time that volunteers give. In my view they therefore fail to calculate any kind of meaningful value to the work of volunteers. Rather they ascribe an economic amount to something we'd never pay for anyway. Even if we did accept that there was some kind of value in these measures, it is calculated on the same terms as paid work, from which we know volunteering is distinctive.

In an age where demonstrating actual value - the contribution made to society, the difference made by giving time - is increasingly critical, whether in effectively recognising volunteers for the work they do or for securing income from funders, we have got to get better at evidencing this for volunteering. Replacement wage calculations do not do this and need replacing with something much better.

Second, the author argues that we should use economic measures because there are existing "statistical systems and surveys". That's following the same line of reasoning as before - we'll measure it because it's easy not because it's the right thing to do. They try to justify this by saying that in the absence of any other methodologies we should go with what we've got lest we end up with something of lower quality, done without academic support.

Frankly, this is someone saying, "Look, this is what we are prepared to measure. If you don't like it then we think you couldn't possibly come up with something yourselves and because academics wouldn't be involved if you did it wouldn't be any good".

4 - Ask for more: don’t forget future research
Here, the article's author accepts that there may be a better measure out there and that we should always ask for more. In fact, they say the academic world should ask for more but given the attitudes we've seen thus far I'd argue that it is the volunteering movement that should ask for more. For more interest in this topic by academics. For more vision and ambition that just settling for what's easy to measure. For more respect for the intelligence of leaders and managers of volunteers rather than assuming superiority over us.

They also argue that what we have now is better than we've had in the past. I'd make two observations here.

First, what we have now is not that different than we had 15-20 years ago. Progress on measuring the true value of volunteering is glacial. We may well ask for more but if we carry on as we are we're looking at decades passing before we get anything better.

Second, is what we have now actually better than not having economic measures for volunteering? Do statements like "Volunteers are worth £500m to the NHS" help? Do they instead suggest to ill-informed decision makers that they could cut budgets and get volunteers in for free instead? Big Society anyone? I'm sure many could do without these problems which we encounter because flawed economic measures of volunteering are so common.

5 - Not everything that counts can be counted
Here, the author acknowledges that other methods of calculating true value such as SROI exist. Again though, they state that these, "measure the social impact of volunteering, but it is extremely difficult to cover all the many types of benefits". So they conclude their article with an admission that its hard, so we'll stick what what we've got. Easy is better than meaningful. Again! Sigh.

What do you think?

Are there better ways to measure the value of the contribution volunteers make to society? What are they and how do they work?

What's been your experience (good and bad) of using economic measures of volunteering?

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Monday, 22 September 2014

Mandated volunteering - a two country perspective

I have recently returned from a five week business trip to Australia, running training on leading and managing volunteers for clients across the country.

During my time in Adelaide I met Mel White, a Brit who had moved to Australia and was continuing a career there that had finished in the UK with her managing a Volunteer Centre. Mel and I shared a number of observations about the differences and similarities between the UK and Australia and I asked Mel to write a guest blog looking at how volunteering varies yet stays the same.

What Mel has come up with is a fascinating and challenging insight into the growth in both countries of mandated volunteering, especially in regard to unemployment and welfare benefits. So, read on, reflect and please sure your thoughts and ideas in response by posting a comment.


In April 2013 my family and I embarked on the biggest adventure of our lives when we waved goodbye to the cold north east region of the UK to immigrate to a much sunnier Adelaide in South Australia. I was leaving behind a role I had been in since January 2000 as a Volunteer Centre Manager based in a larger infrastructure organisation. Twelve months before leaving I had utilised the wondrous internet to make contacts with the sector in Australia. I was going to type ‘voluntary sector’, but there starts the first of many learning curves for me, with it being more commonly known as the ‘not-for-profit’ sector in this particular part of the Southern hemisphere.

Within two weeks of arriving and having sorted out children’s schooling, medical cover and all the seemingly more urgent items I decided I would follow the advice I had given to many people in my years of delivering talks on the benefits of volunteering. In this case its usefulness in helping individuals to settle into a community and build up work experience on my CV (next language difference; known as a resume, down under). My husband dropped me off at the local Volunteer Centre for an appointment I had made and a rather bizarre encounter ensued. They had received my CV 6 months previously when I was flogging it round to anybody and everybody, they had been emailing me for 2 months about a job they had advertised, I hadn’t got the emails but to cut a long story short I went in for a volunteering brokerage service and within a fortnight I was employed with them in a paid position. Delighted doesn’t come close and I was so glad I was where I felt I belonged – back in a Volunteer Centre.

In my 16 months of employment at Southern Volunteering I have learnt so much about the sector and volunteering in Australia. There are lots of observations and interesting similarities and differences I could share but for now at least, I want to talk about one in particular. Imagine my horror coming from the UK to discover that people volunteer in order to maintain benefits from Centrelink (the Australian equivalent of JobCentre Plus). Not only that but the system is audited and volunteers have to commit to work/volunteer up to 15 hours per week. Now I know similar schemes have been trialled in the UK but this is different, it is not hidden or disguised in any way, it is discussed openly and frankly and volunteers happily come in to say they want an opportunity that fits the requirements of their 15 hour ‘obligation’. Furthermore until recently the scheme was mainly offered to the over 55 age group as the government somewhat acknowledges they will struggle to find paid employment. Not sure if that is a good thing or not and I’m pretty sure politicians wouldn’t be so open about it in the UK! However the approach fits with what I love most about Australia and the people who live here; without stereotyping too much, I generally find you know where you stand with Australians, they are direct and polite but without the awkwardness and concern for self image that I sometimes find is a British curse!

At our Centre a large percentage of the volunteers we see are coming in to find something to meet their volunteering hours ‘contract’. Receiving organisations have to be approved by Centrelink and there is follow up from Centrelink to check people are attending and volunteering for their allotted hours each week.

I was initially shocked and so many thoughts went tumbling through my mind; is this really volunteering? Do the participants have choice in whether they want to partake? How do organisations react and involve this unique group of individuals? etc etc.

I remember in my network of Volunteer Centres in the UK one of my colleagues brought in a letter a volunteer had produced when they attended for an appointment. Basically the letter said the individual had to attend the Volunteer Centre for an appointment or their Job Seekers Allowance would be temporarily withheld. There was utter outrage within our network. The JobCentre had not informed or consulted the Volunteer Centre about this, the volunteer was very distressed and quite simply we felt ‘mandating’ volunteering in this way went against the ethos and definition of volunteering. Also as independent voluntary organisations we did not want to be viewed as an arm of the JobCentre. The Volunteer Centre involved quite simply informed the individual that if they did not want to volunteer and were being pressured into it they did not have to see the appointment through. As a network we spoke to higher management within JobCentre Plus about how inappropriate this was.

Some three years later I find myself in Australia with strong feelings opposing voluntary work being aligned with benefit payments and I am faced with a system that embraces it! I had long discussions with my Australian colleagues who assured me they and the sector had felt the same way when the system was introduced some years ago but their feelings had changed. Over time I have observed the practice in place and now I sit firmly on the fence when it comes to my views on this market of volunteers.

Here’s why;

1. The volunteers

Fifteen hours of volunteering (8 hours for those on some disability benefits) is one in a range of options the individual can engage with to satisfy the requirements of their Centrelink agreement. So, despite having no choice to do nothing, they do have a choice in what they would like to follow through; training, job seeking (but this has to be done through an approved job service provider) or volunteering. For many people, being given the option to volunteer long term takes the pressure off finding employment in a tough economic environment and gives structure and purpose to their week. Indeed once they commence I am sure it offers all the perks we regularly use to ‘sell’ volunteering; builds their self confidence, offers a routine and gives them a whole new skill set that they may not acquire otherwise, amongst many more. Some of course go onto to find paid employment within the not-for-profit organisation or a related field.

On occasion individuals have come into our Centre looking for a number of hours and when the interviewer meets them it may become apparent that they have too many restricting health issues for an organisation to safely engage them as a volunteer. Recently our worker was able to report back to the Job Service Provider that a gentleman could not meaningfully volunteer with the number of health issues he had and this was endorsed by his doctor’s letters. It seemed the Job Service Agency actually listened to us (where they had not listened to the individual previously) and the gentleman was incredibly grateful for our intervention.

2. The volunteer involving organisations. 

Organisations complete a Centrelink form if they want to be registered as an “Approved Organisation”.

Having spoken to a number of organisations I found that many were hesitant of involving this group of volunteers when the program was first rolled out.

However those that have gone on to engage with the system have found the 15 hour volunteers tend to be very reliable and commit long term. This is probably because the volunteers know there will be follow-up and consequences will ensue. They also know that they can still continue to look for work but at their own pace rather than being pressured by a case worker.

Organisations also report that the older volunteer has better work ethics and is more conscious of fulfilling their Centrelink or JSA obligations than the younger jobseeker. Generally individuals complete a Centrelink form which the organisation signs to confirm they have agreed to take the individual on as a volunteer and what the commencement date is.

If the individuals are with a Job Services Australia provider, that provider should check occasionally with the organisation on how things are going or they give the individual an attendance form which the organisation is expected to sign each week for the individual for them to take back to the JSA. There is no obligation for the organisation to report back to Centrelink or the JSA if an individual is no longer attending.  Southern Volunteering encourages the organisation to treat the individuals exactly the same as they would for any of their volunteers.

Some programs have 75% of their volunteer base made up of ‘Centrelink’ volunteers so I would imagine if those individuals were not available their programs would struggle to continue and ultimately the beneficiaries of the service would lose.

The final benefit I see is that the profile of the volunteer involving organisations and their opportunities is raised and a new community of potential volunteers is reached. Despite many individuals reluctance to engage they go on to report that they enjoy their time with the organisation.

More significantly like many other ‘incentivised’ volunteer schemes, the individual actually continues to volunteer after their obligation is finished. They continue to do it because they love it. As anyone who works with volunteers knows, the key to getting people involved long term is getting them to join up in the first place. If the gateway to doing this is a little unconventional but the outcome is the same should we put our morals to one side? Over to you.....

Mel White
Community Visitor Scheme Coordinator
Southern Volunteering (SA) Inc.

From July 2014 the idea has been extended into the ‘Work for the Dole’ pilot program, being rolled out in areas of all states of Australia. All jobseekers aged 18-30 in selected areas will have to ‘work for the dole’ for 6 months and placements will be sourced in not-for-profit organisations, local councils and federal and state government agencies.  Work for the Dole places will not be offered in private sector businesses. It will be interesting to watch how the program works with a different age demographic.


Southern Volunteering SA (Inc) provides information on volunteering opportunities and roles available in the southern suburbs of Adelaide including the Fleurieu Peninsula. We also offer training, information and support for not-for-profit organisations. Our Community Visitors Program provides volunteer visitors to resident in Aged Care Facilities, who are socially isolated. For more information please visit our website

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Story of a Glasgow 2014 Volunteer

In our latest blog, friend and former RNIB colleague Adrian Hare shares his experience of being a volunteer at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Our thanks to Adrian for taking the time to write about his experience and give us all a little insight into the organisation, management and fun of volunteering as a Clydesider.


My Glasgow 2014 volunteering journey began around 18 months or so ago, when I applied via the Glasgow 2014 website to become one of their volunteers, officially known as Clydesiders.

What inspired me to apply to volunteer was a love of sport, and a love of Glasgow itself.  I had missed out volunteering at London 2012 despite living on that Game’s doorstep due to being involved with the Paralympic Torch relay.  I was therefore determined not to miss out this time around.

I applied through their website and thought nothing more of it.  That is until I got asked to attend an interview up in Glasgow during the middle of 2013.  Then there was another nerve-wracking wait to find out if I had been accepted.  Imagine my joy when I got an e-mail to say that I had been successful.

To put the Glasgow 2014 volunteer requirements into context, this was bigger than London 2012 for volunteers.  They had 50,000 applications from around the world (I had heard of people travelling from Australia and New Zealand), they interviewed 25,000 and selected 15,000 lucky individuals.

Move on a year and we are coming up to the games.  The training has been done, the uniforms have been sorted out and we have all arranged our travel and accommodation and have received our shifts, although these have been changed at least once between issue and the games themselves.

I was working within Spectator Services, and as its name suggests, I was involved with being the face of the games at two of the stadiums, Celtic Park and Hampden Park.  I had the honour of being on duty at both the opening and closing ceremonies and so saw the Queen, Rod Stewart and Susan Boyle (don’t laugh at the last one).

Being disabled, I was a little unsure about how they would accommodate volunteers with special needs.  However, I needn’t have worried about this.  I can honestly say that the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games were one of the most inclusive sporting events that I have ever attended.

Walking around Celtic Park and Hampden Park, I can hand on heart say that I have seen a number of volunteers (we were officially called Clydesiders) with various special needs.  From people with learning difficulties to those in wheelchairs and those who are blind or partially sighted like myself - I have been partially sighted since birth.  I saw several people in wheelchairs working the same shifts as me as well as people with white canes and guide dogs.  What was very impressive was that they were working the same shifts as everybody else, and they were in the same public facing roles as everybody else.  One of my team leaders for one shift was in a wheelchair as well, and we had lots of fun finding our way around with a blind bat pushing him, neither of us having a clue where we were going.

There were lots of good points, but also some less positive areas.

The good points were a great atmosphere amongst the volunteers and everybody helped each other.  This was combined with the attitude of the venue management teams, the games organisers, etc, who were determined to make the games and venues as inclusive as possible.  This gave volunteering the image of being inclusive and that everybody can be a volunteer.

What were the less positive things?  First, although financial support was available, this was very hard to access and to be honest, did not really help at all.  We were left to fend for ourselves when it came to travel and accommodation and this had to be funded by us (the same as with London 2012).  Also, the volunteers were left a little underwhelmed when it came to break time.  We were only given sandwiches over the days we were working, and they were the same fillings every single day.  Quite often they did end up running out of food for us, but that was perhaps not such a bad things, as we had stopped really eating anyway.

If I was to be asked if I had enjoyed my time in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games, it would be a resounding YES!!!  I love volunteering and love being involved with sport.

I also loved the inclusive nature of Glasgow 2014 and have made many friends whilst there, hopefully I will remain in contact with a few of them.

Adrian Hare


In our next blog (coming soon) guest writer Mel White shares her reflections on the differences between the volunteering movement in the UK and Australia when it comes to mandated volunteering as part of workfare schemes. Watch this space!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

One Nation Labour: renewing our bond with the third sector

In this blog post I want to share my response to the current consultation being undertake by the Labour Party, "One Nation Labour: renewing our bond with the third sector".

I would very much welcome your thoughts on my contribution to their consultation and I'd love to hear what you may have submitted yourselves.


Our response

A contextual observation
As with many things concerning the third sector, volunteering cannot be separated from the context within which it occurs, be that the sector context or the wider societal context. 

Our first comment then, in light of the rest of the consultation document issued by Labour, is that if there are some 15million volunteers (at least) and 800,000 paid staff in the third sector then on sheer volume alone we find it hard to understand how you can state that paid staff are “the sector’s biggest asset”. In fact, considering the vast majority of third sector organisations have no paid staff and run entirely on volunteers, we would caution Labour to rethink this position. 

Volunteers are the sectors biggest asset, without them large parts of the sector cease to function, including those organisations which employ, many paid staff. Without volunteers, many of these sector employees would have no jobs as the agencies they work for would not exist in the first place. Without volunteers, the very fabric of our society in the UK would be immensely poorer, as Justin Davis Smith so eloquently articulated in Volunteers’ Week 2014.

What could a Labour Government do to encourage and support more people to volunteer? 
We question the assumption that more volunteers are what our society needs. We are concerned Labour are falling into the common trap of assuming that more volunteers is a measure of success. Any professional leader and manager of volunteers would be quite clear that if an organisation’s mission can be fulfilled effectively with ten volunteers then to recruit 100 to do the same task is wasteful and inefficient.

The question should therefore not be “What could a Labour Government do to encourage and support more people to volunteer?” but perhaps “What could a Labour Government do to encourage and support more organisations to provide meaningful, enjoyable and rewarding volunteer experiences that meet the needs of people today whilst delivering effective social change?”. This important change leads to a significant shift in emphasis which, if applied in practical ways (for example to replace the simple numbers game criteria when organisations apply for funding from the State, lottery, trusts & foundations etc.) would help to bring about a significant shift in the strategic importance of volunteering to third sector organisations.

As the American consultant and expert Susan Ellis put it recently in one of her monthly Hot Topic essays:

“Most of the time funding is sought by organizations for program ideas generated by paid staff, often to hire more paid staff. Only after money has been obtained does someone say, “let’s get volunteers to help.” Waiting until the end of the process to “add in” volunteers is a huge missed opportunity because it does not maximize the contribution of volunteers to the brains of an organization!  nstead, involve volunteers from the beginning of planning a new initiative, to generate more ideas and add their perspectives and knowledge.  Next, strategize what volunteers will be asked to do in implementing the initiative if funded, and explain that in the actual proposal – including budgeting funds to support their efforts.  This sequence of events considers volunteers as essential team members, not as an afterthought.”

Such a shift in thinking by leaders of third sector organisations is essential if those same organisations are to not only deliver great volunteering opportunities but also lead their organisations to success in the post-recession, austerity driven environment in which they operate. In short, a new mindset is needed for a new age and continuing to measure success in numbers of volunteers will not bring that change about.

Finally, focusing success criteria on the quality of the volunteering experience rather than the volume of people giving time could have the following three positive impacts:

  1. More people enjoy their volunteering resulting in them wanting to do more of it and becoming more evangelical about the experience with friends, family, colleagues etc..
  2. Helping support an effective volunteering legacy after large scale public events. Clearly people were inspired to volunteer by the Games Makers and others but their experience was unlikely to match up to that seen at such a once-in-a-lifetime event as we saw in 2012. A focus on the volunteer experience might have helped ameliorate this rather than just plugging more people into the same old tired and un-inspiring volunteer opportunities.
  3. Focus volunteering not only onto helping third sector organisations fulfil their mission but on the way people live their lives in the 21st century and how this affects their willingness to give - and keep giving - time. Third sector organisation have to adapt to our changing world where people don’t thrill to giving large amounts of time in an open ended commitment anymore. This requires a clearer focus on how people want to give and how to deliver a good experience in these contexts. A focus on numbers of volunteers fails to acknowledge this.

How do we encourage volunteering in areas of deprivation? 
First, we have to stop assuming that people in areas of deprivation do not volunteer. Too often the narrative assumes certain groups of people are ‘under-represented’ in volunteering, including those from areas of deprivation, disabled people, BME communities etc.. What this narrative is actually saying is that such groups are under-represented in the kid of volunteering that the state, sector, establishment etc. wants to count. It does not take into account that many people from these groups do indeed volunteer but not in ways the mainstream considers as worthwhile. For example, campaigning, advocacy, self-help etc.. This leads to an insidious conclusion, whereby people from these groups who are already active volunteers have to do what the mainstream want if they are to be counted and supported whilst their existing efforts are disregarded. That is perhaps a worse form of exclusion and discrimination that putting barriers in the way of those groups in the first place.

Bearing all that in mind, we commend two initiatives to you: 

  • The NCVO Volunteering For Stronger Communities project which concluded in December 2013. This worked in fifteen economically disadvantaged parts of the country and worked with some of those furthest from the labour market to help them engage in volunteering as a route to towards employability. The project had a 20% success rate at getting people into employment, in stark contrast to the success of the coalition’s Work Programme.
  • The Access to Volunteering fund created by the last Labour government (the evaluation is available as a pdf here) which made real and tangible steps towards helping Volunteer Involving Organisations break down barriers for those disabled people who struggled to engage in the volunteering they wanted to do.

What role should schools play in encouraging and supporting young people to volunteer? 
Having been a school governor for a number if years I can personally attest to the value of schools supporting children and young people to engage in their communities in a variety of ways. However, I want to focus less on schools but on four other issues:

  1. As with the issue of encouraging volunteering in areas of deprivation, don’t assume young people aren’t already volunteering. Too many people and institutions are all too ready to portray the UK’s young people as feckless, idle, selfish and work-shy. This may be true of a minority but it isn’t of the majority. Assuming young people don’t volunteer and creating programmes accordingly fails to acknowledge the volunteering young people already do. This is a mistake that must not be made.
  2. The importance of families in encouraging young people to volunteer must not be underestimated. The example set by parents, siblings and the wider family has a profound influence on young people’s attitudes to volunteering. Family volunteering programmes, so popular and established in countries like the USA, are woefully under-developed in the UK. The National Trust have been pioneering this work through, amongst other things, their Big Family Day Out initiative. We would encourage a future Labour Governement to explore the potential for supporting more family volunteering across the UK.
  3. We have to be mindful that the continued focus on young people giving time for no pay, whether through volunteering or internships or workfare schemes, risks alienating a generation towards volunteering. I wrote about this on my blog a couple of years ago and young people I have spoken to subsequently endorse and share my concerns. Whatever a future Labour Government does around volunteering by young people,. such concerns should be uppermost in their minds.
  4. Linking back to the first point, a key thing a future Labour Government can do to support young people to volunteer is to actually capture this is national data on volunteering. The citizenship survey, the community life survey which replaced it and the successive national survey’s of volunteering (1981, 91, 97, 07) count only volunteering by adults. Volunteering by anyone under 18 is conspicuous in its absence. This holds true in other countries as well and presents the opportunity for a future Labour Government to start being one of the first in the world to actually count volunteering by young people alongside existing data. 

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Three ways the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign may be doing more harm than good

In my last blog post I wrote about the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign (KVV) and the misunderstanding propagated by the UK media that the government's new Help To Work scheme is volunteering.

Let me say it again, Community Work Placements (CWP) under Help to Work ARE NOT VOLUNTEERING. They do not meet the definitions of volunteer (freely entered into being the key issue) and even the government recognises this.

Section 2.14 of the guidance for providers of community work placements states that:

If a claimant is already undertaking voluntary work and you can justifiably advise that the work is beneficial to the claimant by helping them to overcome barriers to employment, you may count that voluntary work towards the full time work placement hours. However, if you do not feel the voluntary work is of appropriate benefit to the claimant, you may require the claimant to do the full-time work in the placement you have sourced for them (but must give the claimant at least 1 weeks notice). Please Note: Where a claimant is already undertaking voluntary work you must also ensure you give the claimant 48 hours notice for any required participation/ attendance.

Section 2.16 states:

Please Note: JCP will refer claimants who have insufficient work history or a lack of motivation; therefore we would expect only a minimal proportion of claimants currently undertaking part-time or voluntary work to be referred to CWP.

In other words, volunteering is not the same as a CWP (if it were, no distinction would be drawn) and if someone is already volunteering it is unlikely they would be required to do a CWP. However, this is up to the discretion of the JCP adviser and that means inconsistent decisions will occur as years of past experience have taught many in the volunteering world.

Also, note that there are no other references to volunteering in the entire guidance document.

Despite this clear distinction - Help To Work and CWPs are NOT VOLUNTEERING - the KVV campaign rolls on, arguing that:

"As charities and voluntary organisations we know the value of volunteering. Volunteering means people independently choosing to give their time freely to help others and make the world a better place. Workfare schemes force unemployed people to carry out unpaid work or face benefit sanctions that can cause hardship and destitution.   We believe in keeping volunteering voluntary and will not participate in government workfare schemes.”

In my view they risk doing much more harm than good to the volunteering cause. Here are my three main concerns.

Number one
By failing to recognise that Help To Work's CWPs are not volunteering the signatories and supporters of KVV are showing their ignorance of and / or confusion about volunteering. The voluntary and community sector sector relies upon volunteers and is the main involver of volunteers so surely they should know better - the KVV statement even claims they do in its opening line!

The potential harm here is that KVV could further confuse others about volunteering and CWPs, with the public an media turning against genuine volunteering and not forced workfare.

A much more sensible approach would be for the KVV campaign to focus on educating the media on the difference between a CWP and a volunteer opportunity so the risk of public opinion being unduly swayed negatively towards volunteering is minimised.

Number two
The campaign is probably having having little influence on government. There are two main reasons for this assumption: first, government know CWPs are not volunteering so they can confidently ignore the campaign; second, as I suggested above, the effort is directed at the wrong people - the media should be the focus.

I also worry how the ignorance about volunteering that is on display from this campaign might harm the credibility of bodies who have signed up when it comes to any future campaigning about volunteering that might be needed. I can hear ministers and officials saying things like, "why should we listen to you on volunteering, you don't even understand what it is yourselves?"

Thank goodness NCVO are not signatories!

Number three
The KVV campaign is perpetuating the media driven myth that CWPs are volunteering and so creating the risk anti-workfare campaigners begging calling for a ban on all unpaid work.

Think that's far fetched? Look at this blog from the USA where someone makes the argument that all volunteering is exploitative and should be banned. How long before similar voices are heard on this side of the pond? We already have the risk of threats to volunteering from the ongoing rumblings about unpaid internships. The risk, however small we may think it is, is real and KVV is adding fuel to the fire.

In conclusion let me say that I think people are genuinely concerned about the blurring lines between volunteering and workfare. They have been for over a decade. There are genuine workfare schemes and issues to complain about and fight for beyond Help To Work and CWPs as KVV make clear on their website. I've fought some of this fights myself and will continue to do so in future.

The profile of the KVV campaign and these issues has grown because of media misreporting of Help To Work and CWPs as volunteering. This coincided with KVV calling for support and so we end up with lots of confusion and misunderstanding about what is and is not volunteering.

I genuinely do not think the people and bodies behind KVV are trying to harm volunteering. I am sure their intentions are good and I hope my views above about the potential damage being done are proven to be wrong.  But until we know that for sure I think the volunteering movement needs to consider the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign carefully and cautiously, because if I'm right they could be doing much more harm than good.

See also these related blog posts from me:

Is all work experience equal?
Are we alienating a generation of volunteers?
Is all volunteering voluntary?

Monday, 19 May 2014

Is all volunteering voluntary?

There has been much controversy in the last few weeks about the UK government’s Help To Work scheme. To quote the government press release:

“The new measures include intensive coaching, a requirement to meet with the Jobcentre Plus adviser every day, or taking part in a community work placement for up to 6 months so claimants build the skills needed to secure a full-time job”

In response to this new scheme a campaign has been initiated called Keep Volunteering Voluntary. Numerous organisations have signed up to the campaign including many Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Centres and household name charities.

However, as Jamie Ward-Smith points out in his excellent blog  on the topic, Help To Work is NOT volunteering. The mainstream media has chosen to report it as such, demonstrating their ignorance of the difference between the voluntary sector and volunteering (which takes place in the public and private sector too). Maybe that’s why the Keep Volunteering Voluntary campaign only want supporters from the voluntary sector, not the private or public sectors?

As Jamie points out in his blog, the government are clear that Help To Work is not volunteering. They told Civil Society that: 

“Volunteers provide a very valuable contribution to society - however the placements we are providing will help long-term unemployed claimants get the skills and experience they need to get back into work. Community Work Placements are designed for people whose lack of experience of work is holding them back from getting a job, and many community-based organisations recognise the benefits it has on their organisation, the local community, and the jobseeker.”

I find it quite worrying that agencies like NAVCA, Oxfam, Volunteer Centres and others don’t seem able to grasp the difference between people working in the voluntary sector and volunteers. These are agencies we look to for expertise, organisations with long track records in the volunteering movement. Why can’t they get that distinction? 

But this blog isn’t about criticising the organisers and supporters of the Keep Volunteering Voluntary scheme. Misinformed they may be but their heart is probably in the right place. Rather I want to question whether all the volunteering we might more readily accept as voluntary actually is, and whether it actually matters.

Consider for a minute the undergraduate student. All must do some kind of volunteering at university if they are to stand a chance of getting a job because a degree is no longer a guarantee of employment - employers want something else too. So amongst their studies and the part time work they do to cover their costs they go out and volunteer. Nobody is forcing these students in the sense of the critics of Help To Work but they can’t not do it or they limit their chance of a job. Look at it that way and their ability to freely choose to volunteer becomes more limited.

Think about the high school students in the USA who have to do some volunteering in order to graduate high school. They may not have a choice to do the work but they can choose what they do and where they volunteer. They are exercising some choice. Is that enough?

You see the issue of freely choosing to volunteer (or not) isn’t as clear cut as some would have us believe. Add into that the reality that in many schemes where people are required to volunteer they go on to do much more volunteering subsequently than those who weren’t made to give time in the first place. RockCorps found this as did many of those USA high schools. Isn’t it worth bending the definition a little if it means more people giving more time as a result?

And then there is the risk that if we are so ‘purist’ in our thinking we limit the scope of our relevance as Volunteer Managers.

Jayne Cravens and Martin J Cowling wrote about this in an excellent article for e-Volunteerism back in 2007, concluding that:

“We believe that managers of volunteers have a place at the main table of an organization. To demonstrate this, we need to take overall responsibility for all those who contribute in an unpaid capacity to the organization. The place to start is to have managers expand their views about their own responsibilities and to reconsider who is a volunteer at their organization. Managers must avoid reinforcing stereotypes and spurious distinctions about volunteers, and agree to work with, support and strategically position people who fall “outside” the realm of the limited idea of the "true" or "real" volunteer. This process is not just about creating more work; it is a completely different way of working. It raises the role of the volunteer manager from that of "nice" to that of "essential." And it helps organizations understand that their contributions are far from extraneous to the organization's core activities.“ 

I’m not trying to give neat answers here but provoke thought and discussion. Despite those who tell us the world is made up of simple black and white realities, the truth is that shades of grey abound. It is our ethical responsibility as Volunteer Managers to determine where we draw the line professional and where our agencies draw that line. But to do that we need informed thinking and debate, not campaigns driven by wrong thinking, misinformation, ignorance and a narrow world view that doesn’t stack up to the messy reality of real life.

What do you think?

Friday, 9 May 2014

Unintended consequences

It was Katherine’s last day at work before retirement. She’d been a Volunteer Manager for nearly sixty years now. Since they pushed the retirement age up to 85 a few years back she’d resigned herself to sticking with the profession for a little longer.

Katherine had seen so much change in the profession since she fell into the role back in 2014 as a fresh faced 25 year old, full of ‘I-can-change-the-world’ optimism and vigour.

“Where did that energy go?”, she wondered to herself.

Her last day at work saw Katherine giving a talk to the local networking group for members of the Association of Volunteer Management Professionals (AVMP). It was an opportunity for her to reflect on all the changes she’d seen and to give people (many new to the field) a sense of the history of the profession. After all, she’d forgotten more about volunteer management than many of them had even known.

Back when Katherine had started, a profession for Volunteer Managers was still in its infancy. The Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM), as they were called back, then had just started consulting members on the development of a code of practice. Wheels that had been slow to turn quickly gathered pace as the discussions intensified and finally, by the end of 2015, the code was in place.

And that was the first problem. The code had been agreed by paid workers who specialised in leading and managing volunteers and volunteer programmes. There had been a fair bit of diversity in that group, some headed up volunteering at a strategic in large organisations whilst others were in the trenches, managing volunteers day-to-day in a range of contexts. That in itself had been an achievement as there had been all sorts of associations and networks for people working in different contexts at that time.

The problem though was that the majority of people who managed volunteers hadn’t been involved. All those volunteers who did volunteer management roles. All those paid staff in organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors but weren’t specialists in volunteerism - the business managers, administrators, nurses, doctors, teachers, fundraisers etc. - they all had no say in the code.

Looking back it was clear that this had been one of the causes of the two tier set up Katherine and others struggled with now. The AVMP which stood up for volunteering specialists and the Association of Managers of Volunteers (AMV) who spoke for everyone else. Sure the two bodies agreed on some things but more often than not they were at loggerheads, the AMV accusing the AVMP of being elitist and exclusionary, the AVMP accusing the AMV of undermining professional standards by not having codes of practice, qualifications etc..

Of course, the codes of practice and qualifications did give the work of AVMP members much needed rigour. Organisations knew that if you employed an AVMP member to run your volunteer programmes you were getting someone who knew their stuff and would do a good job. Lessons had been learnt early on from other fields that just because someone earned a good wage didn’t make them competent. As AVM developed into AVMP between 2020 & 2025 they made sure that their members were highly effective rather than just highly paid.

But all those structures had caused problems too. It had vastly narrowed the entry routes into volunteer management, resulting in a far less diverse field than it had been before. That caused the first criticisms of AVMP being elitist, a legacy that sadly continued all these years later.

With hindsight it had perhaps all been to process focused too, with Volunteer Managers having to jump through endless hoops to prove their worth. That was until a better balance was achieved, with academic and vocational aspects carrying equal weight in the accreditation process. But this still caused problems for those whose years of prior experience suddenly counted for nothing unless they had a piece of paper in their hands. Many of those had simply given up, quit or moved on, often using their experience to take up senior roles in Volunteer Involving Organisations, their disenchantment with what volunteer management had become causing them to sometimes be too hard on their own Volunteer Managers. It had also resulted in a big loss of knowledge and experience that would have been invaluable in the education of new Volunteer Managers.

Of course, those issues worked themselves through over time but it had been a difficult and painful few years for the emerging profession and for the individuals affected.

And then there had been the credibility issue.

All the original codes of practice were clear on what the volunteering was that members of AVMP led and managed. It involved no reward and required no incentive. Nothing of any material value was ever exchanged. Ever. Volunteers only gave time if they freely chose to. In short, volunteering was a neatly defined and fixed reality.

Looking back over sixty years Katherine could see how volunteering had changed and evolved because volunteers themselves had changed. People today lived different lives than people sixty years ago. Looking back it was obvious in a way it hadn’t been at the time that defining ‘valid’ volunteering in terms of what had come before was the wrong call.

In the last sixty years incentives and rewards had become more commonplace and accepted. Volunteering didn’t suffer, it changed.

In the last sixty years (in fact even before then) people got something material out of their volunteering. It had remained the case that volunteers weren’t paid a wage for what they did (that had been a line in the sand that nobody was willing to cross) but schemes such as those that used to be called Timebanking or where volunteers got credits they could exchange in stores had all developed. Volunteering didn’t suffer, it changed.

In the last sixty years people had realised that the absence of a free choice to volunteer wasn’t just there when someone was forcing you to give time in exchange for graduating school or claiming a benefit. Absence of free choice was there - always had been there - when peer pressure was at play, or societal expectations were in place (such as university students having to volunteer if they stood a chance of getting a job on graduation). Volunteering didn’t suffer.

What suffered was the emerging profession of volunteer managers. They drew the boundaries of what was acceptable for their members to manage so tightly that it reduced their credibility to speak out on anything other than ‘pure’ volunteering. They saw volunteering as something that wouldn’t change. When it did they realised they needed to as well. It had been a close run thing for a time with the profession almost dying before it had begun, strangled by its own restrictions. But thankfully things changed.

And so things got off to a rocky start. But the biggest challenge came in the late 20’s.

With hindsight, they should have seen it coming. The same thing had affected fundraising in the 00’s and 10’s. And Volunteering England (as they were back then) had done that work on Volunteer Rights. Yes, the warning signs were there but hadn’t been spotted.

Katherine shuddered as she remembered one of the toughest times of her career.

As the professional of volunteer management had become more established and high profile so the expectations volunteers had of their managers and the organisations they gave time to had grown. More people were giving time, volunteering was more high profile and socially acceptable and those who volunteered demanded the same levels of professionalism from Volunteer Managers that they demanded from doctors, lawyers, teachers and other professions. And when they didn’t get it, they complained.

As the AVMP became more established the complaints increased and increased.

Soon others started to take notice. The media, always on the look out for a negative story, started to run pieces on volunteers who felt let down or poorly by Volunteer Managers and Volunteer Involving Organisations, whether members of the new profession or not (that distinction didn’t matter to the person on the Clapham Omnibus). First it was just consumer watchdog stuff but then the mainstream media picked it up. Newspapers ran negative stories about Volunteer Managers just like they had when the public got frustrated with fundraisers a decade beforehand.

Then the politicians got involved. AVMP staff and board members were called to parliament to explain to MPs why so many volunteers felt poorly treated. AVMP was told to get its house in order. Self-regulation was demanded with the threat of statutory regulation if that didn’t work. Politicians weren’t about to let so many of their constituents feel so frustrated and see nothing done by those they’d put in power.

Whereas fundraising had taken a decade or so to get self-regulation working properly, politicians expected Volunteer Managers to get it sorted in much less time. After all, Volunteer Managers and fundraisers were all in the same sector so they must talk to each other right? Wrong as it turned out. So for a while it had been a close run thing with AVMP frantically trying to play catch up with fundraising colleagues and put in place a scheme of self-regulation before the statutory regulation deadline. They made it, just. It wasn’t perfect and tweaks had to be made of course.

They’d been dark days. The public had turned against Volunteer Managers. Politicians had turned against Volunteer Managers. Many Volunteer Managers turned against AVMP, claiming that all the work to professionalise the field had demonised it instead. That had been another seed that had led to the Association of Managers of Volunteers which still caused tensions to this day.

“Ladies and gentleman, it’s time for our keynote speaker…”

The organiser of the network meeting had started her introduction and it brought Katherine round from her reminiscences. As the introduction finished she got to her feet and walked the few steps to the the podium, ready to share her takes on the lessons of the past.

Katherine’s last thought before she spoke was that she wished she’d know in 2015 what she knew now.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Is our destination clear?

In the last few months there has been a growing sense of movement and action by the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM).

Since their last conference in October 2013 AVM has been gathering a head of steam with a new board, new website, regular email newsletters and a more concerted effort to engage with its members. This has resulted in a growing membership and more recently the start of efforts to develop a code of practice for volunteer management. This latter step is significant as it heralds a move by AVM to not just advocate for and support Volunteer Managers but to also establish volunteer management as a recognised profession.

AVM board member Patrick Daniels, writing in a personal capacity, is writing a series of blogs to try and unpick exactly what a profession is. Please do take a look and engage in discussion with Patrick because this debate is key to shaping the future direction of both AVM and the work of Volunteer Managers.   

I am wholly supportive of AVM's efforts to move the debate forward and to try and secure more status and respect for Volunteer Managers but here I want to take a step back and look at two questions that I don't think get enough attention yet to me are fundamental to the debate.

First, what do we want to gain from Volunteer Management becoming a profession?

All the debate I’ve seen in the last 20 years seems to take it for granted that becoming a profession will achieve something but there doesn’t ever seem to be any serious debate had or consensus reached as to what exactly ‘something’ is.

Do we want more money?

Do we want more credibility? If so, who with? HR? CEOs? Boards? Managers? Staff? Volunteers? The public?

Do we want to be held in higher regard? By whom?

Do we want to be better understood? By whom? 

Do we want something else? What? Why?

When we can answer these questions honestly and have some agreement upon them then we will be in a much better place to assess whether the typical steps to becoming a profession that Patrick so clearly lays out will actually achieve the something we want.

Oh, and by the way, when I say “we can answer” and “we can agree” who exactly is we? Members of AVM? The 200,000 Volunteer Managers estimated in the UK? Paid Volunteer Managers? Voluntary Volunteer Managers? A majority? People who manage volunteers but aren’t and wouldn’t consider themselves to be Volunteer Managers?

Second, given the current work by AVM to seek to establish a code of practice for volunteer management as the first step towards becoming a profession (discussions started with members at last autumn’s conference), what exactly is the good - or should that be best? - volunteer management practice that we want to codify?

I’ve asked this question before on discussion groups like UKVPMs and my experience is that people really struggle to answer it. We have things like Investing in Volunteers (IiV) which assess an organisations competence to involve volunteers and we have National Occupation Standards which lay out what basic good practice is (although the NOS are far from ideal, mainly just codifying the process management aspects of Volunteer Managers role) but I don’t believe we have a consensus at all on what makes someone a good volunteer manager.

What do they do?

What approach do they bring?

How do they conduct themselves?

What difference is there between someone who is competent, someone who is good and someone who is outstanding?

If we (and refer back to my earlier point about what exactly ‘we’ means) in the role of Volunteer Managers cannot say what makes us good at our jobs then how can we start to codify that into a set of standards and principles that would apply universally across our diverse field so as to set a robust benchmark for professional standards?

Let me say again, this is not a criticism of AVM. I support and welcome their work. They are great people doing good stuff for Volunteer Managers. What I want to do with this post is help us all think a little harder about why we might be setting off down a particular road and whether the effort we expend in doing so will bring us to the destination we desire.

In a future blog I want to explore some of the potential unintended consequences of Volunteer Management becoming a profession but for now I'd love to hear what you think about what I've posted today. Please add your views with a comment below. 

Friday, 28 March 2014

The smokescreen of charity CEO pay

What charities pay their Chief Executives continues to be a topic grabbing headlines in sector and mainstream media alike here in the UK.

I have to admit, I remain slightly perplexed about the issue. 

Perhaps it’s because my career has been spent mainly dealing with the vast majority of the charity ‘workforce’, the volunteers who get paid nothing; without whom most charities, large and small, would be nothing; and without whom almost nobody who draws a salary in a charity - CEOs included - would have a job. 

Perhaps its because those who do the complex and challenging role of leading and managing volunteers get paid so poorly compared to their peers in, say, fundraising. In fact many are volunteers themselves and their work is essential to the delivery of important services to people across the country.

Either way the charity CEO pay debate rumbles on. And on. And on.

I was struck recently by a piece in Civil Society which reported the shadow charities minister, Lisa Nandy MP, “has warned that charity leadership needs to tackle the problem of unfair pay ratios in charities”.

Once I got over the shock of an MP preaching about pay to a group of charities I read on to discover that this warning was issued in the context of a debate about the future of charities. 

Is this really the most important strategic issue facing the charity world at the moment? I’m not saying it may not be important at all but I can think of many other issues much more worth of attention.

Nandy also apparently criticised charities for taking on an increasing number of unpaid interns, sometimes “with connections to established staff”. Another issue MPs are uniquely qualified to lecture charities on because, as we know, involving unpaid interns, sometimes people with connections to the MP themselves, NEVER happens does it? 

Regardless, if this is happening in the charity sector (and nobody is producing evidence to prove it), then it warrants a better debate that unpaid = bad, paid = good, as I have blogged before.

The debate then seems to have moved into discussion of the ratio between what a charity CEO is paid and what frontline workers are paid. Again, no recognition that the vast majority of frontline workers in charities get no pay at all and so such ratios are totally meaningless! 

But let’s just go with it and assume that frontline workers in charities are all paid.

Cath Bavage, CEO of Volunteer Centre Tower Hamlets, is quoted by Civil Society as saying:

“NCVO sounds pleased with itself that its own ratio of senior executive to lowest-paid staff member is 8:1. Is its chief executive really worth eight times more than an administrator? Does he work hard? Yes, probably. Does he work eight times harder, or does he have eight times more impact? I very much doubt it.”

"Why isn’t NCVO arguing for flatter pay structures and a more even distribution of wages in the voluntary sector? Surely a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1 would be a far better thing in charities with limited funds? It would help reassure donors that their money is being spent prudently and would better reward frontline staff who often work in emotionally demanding jobs. "

To which I would respond:

No, the CEO of NCVO probably doesn’t work eight times harder or have eight times more impact. No CEO does. But pay is not a measure of how hard someone works or how much impact they have. On that basis the volunteer lifeboat crew member would be paid a small fortune for each life they save and we’d have every Samaritan in the country in the top tax bracket. 

[Interestingly, research seems to suggest its not what we pay people but how we pay people that makes a difference.]

Surely what would reassure donors that their money is being spent prudently is whether the organisation makes best use of all the resources at its disposal and, in that broader context, whether salaries are being paid for the right kind of roles and then (finally) at the right kind of levels.

Assume for a minute that we have two organisations doing similar work with similar budgets. As a donor, I would be wanting to ask questions if organisation A was paying someone £20,000 to do a role that Organisation B fulfilled just as well through volunteers. That suggests that rather than exploring all the options for fulfilling its mission, organisation A just paid someone whereas organisation B created a volunteer programme to achieve that goal and used £18,000 (because volunteering may be freely given but it is not cost free) for something else, perhaps paying for someone to do a role that organisation A can’t do because it doesn’t have enough money.

Maybe the reason I feel perplexed about the charity CEO debate is that it appears to be a smokescreen for any kind of real debate about far more important issues. Issues like whether charities are really doing the best with what they have available for the most vulnerable in society, or whether all this talk of charities actually ignores the majority of charities in favour of the minority who receive the biggest slice of charitable income. Surely they are far more important topics to consider when thinking about the future of the sector than government, the sector’s infrastructure bodies and CEOs remaining inwardly focused on what they earn and whether they should earn it?

For some intelligent and informed exploration of the charity CEO pay debate, check out these two pieces from nfpSynergy: