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?