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.