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?


  1. As Volunteer managers we have to make the choice about who we support. I believe that I can support the person while strongly opposing the system that removes his or her choice whether to volunteer. This would include supporting someone to make the decision NOT to undertake unpaid work; volunteering or not.

  2. I suppose it depends on which fence you need to sit on. When it comes to involving people in what we do I don't really care what it's called, the imperative is to encourage people to get involved, to ensure they have a fantastic experience and ensure they make a difference in other people's lives (directly or indirectly) - I'd happily call them Jedi Knights if that's what they want. If it's about strategy and policy implementation I can see that it needs to have a little more finesse because of they way we all work, and that lines needs to be drawn but surely the lines need to be done in crayon rather than permanent marker. I do believe language is vitally important (and no-one loves a better debate on the definition of volunteering, than me) but it shouldn't get in the way of making the world a better place.

  3. I have many volunteers and many voluntolds within my organization and when they are working shoulder to shoulder no one can see or tell the difference. The voluntolds receive the same application, orientation, and intake process, and guess what? Some of them stay beyond what they were expected to do. I call that awesome.

  4. I have a large amount of volunteers and voluntolds ( people who are doing this for a specific compelling reason.) Both are given the same application, orientation, and expectations. When working shoulder to shoulder no one can tell the difference in work or enthusiasm. Sometimes, when the voluntold has completed the required amount of service they remain, because they are hooked on our mission or on volunteering itself, isn't that reason enough to be open?

  5. Precisely, Marty O'Dell. I concur that when unpaid workers come through the door and a job gets done as a result, it does not matter to me whether they are volunteers or voluntolds, whether they come of their own free volition, or are serving a court-mandated or service-oriented opportunity to help. We strive to be equal opportunity in my nonprofit and have learned there is a bigger lesson than caring why someone works or volunteer-works here.

  6. This blog provides great information!!