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.

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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.


Notes
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.

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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 www.svsa.org.au






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.

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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

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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!