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.