Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Three reasons why it’s time to stop talking about amateurs and professionals

For many years I’ve heard and read variations on the same theme: Volunteers are just well meaning amateurs. If you want something done properly then it needs to be handed over to a professional.

It’s a position used as a justification for not giving volunteers meaningful things to do. They’re amateurs, they’d just mess it up.

It’s an argument used to combat fears of job displacement. How many times have we read in recent years that library services will suffer if volunteers are left do the work of professional librarians?

It’s a way of thinking that perpetuates a division in Volunteer Involving Organisations, between the paid staff - who are seen as essential - and the volunteers - who are seen as a nice to have optional extra, a bit like metallic paint on a new car.

We need to stop this thinking now more than ever. Any time we encounter such views we need to start actively challenging them.

I want to share three reasons why.

The first relates to definitions.

Whilst it is true that the word amateur can be used to denote competence, its primary definition is one that refers to an activity undertaken without pay. Professional on the other hand suggests either that someone belongs to a specific profession (a doctor, lawyer or teacher for example) or is being paid for the work they do.

So, whilst some may suggest volunteers are incompetent by calling them amateurs, the labelling of paid staff as professionals carries with it no assumption of competence.

It is one of the biggest myths I encounter in my work that if someone is paid they become more competent. Similarly that the more someone is paid the more competent they must be.

I have worked with highly competent volunteers as well as incompetent ones. I have worked with highly incompetent paid staff as well as competent ones. I bet you have too. Never did someone's level of remuneration effect how good they were at the job.

Second, labelling volunteers as well meaning amateurs, and therefore implying they are incompetent, is just lazy thinking that dodges the need to consider properly how we effectively engage people in our organisations.

Let’s go back to the library example I mentioned above. At no point does anyone who has criticised the idea of volunteer run libraries ever appeared to stop and considered that perhaps there might be very well training, highly competent professional librarians who might want to volunteer to help run these libraries. Perhaps they are retired and want to get involved in their field again? Perhaps they are non-practicing librarians but want time away from their non-library day jobs? Perhaps they are unemployed and/ or returning to work and want to get up-to-speed again?

Nope, straight away the assumption is that we’ll just take anyone we can find and throw them in at the deep end to run a library. If we did that then of course professional librarians would be a better option, but would any competent Volunteer Manager ever do such a thing? No! We spend time finding the right people, selecting them carefully for the right roles, training them up and supporting them to do the best work possible.

Finally, the issues we face in society are simply too big for any one pay category to deal with. No Voluntary and Community Sector organisation is ever going to have all the money to pay people to do all the work that needs doing. That’s truer now then ever. A team effort is needed, one where paid and unpaid ‘staff’ are engaged and deployed most effectively to work together to achieve an organisation’s mission.

We can no longer afford to waste energy discrediting volunteers as well meaning but incompetent amateurs whilst automatically assuming paid staff are always competent and the solution to everything. Instead we need to embrace the passion & potential of volunteers and employees, amateurs and professionals, and harness that for the good causes we serve.

Anything less is at best wasteful, and at worst negligent, behaviour in the stewardship of our resources when so many are in need of our support.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Volunteer rights and the scope of the Charity Commission

For this posting we are really happy to welcome visiting blogger and our former colleague at Volunteering England, Mike Locke, who shares with us his views on the ongoing issue of volunteer rights following a recent report from the Charity Commission (England & Wales).


The Charity Commission has recently made clear its position on allegations of unfair treatment of volunteers.  Its Operational Case Report regarding St John Ambulance saw the issue as a matter of the charity’s administration, such that the Charity Commission would only get involved if governance procedures had not been followed or if the case threatened to bring the charity into disrepute.

This may not grab the headlines, but it’s helpful because during the long-running attempts to resolve volunteer rights there has been a question why complaints made by volunteers to the Charity Commission have been regarded as outside its scope.

The actual case here concerning, in its full name, The Priory of England and The Islands of the Order of St John was that the charity adopted a regional structure on grounds of finance, quality and impact, and consistency. However, according to a “senior volunteer” in the Telegraph newspaper in 2011: “If the structure is changed … what incentive is there for local people to volunteer and raise money?” In resisting restructuring, a small number of volunteers were “disciplined”.  The case sounds like the classic dilemma which other national charities have faced of tensions between national and local control – and I’m in no position to comment, only sympathise.

The Charity Commission looked into the case given “ongoing complaints” and found: “It is regrettable when disciplinary proceedings have to be brought against volunteers and we recognise that the events brought considerable distress to those involved. We did not see anything to suggest that the charity acted in a way that would bring the charity into disrepute such that the commission should become involved in these matters.”

The point about disrepute echoes the concern of Lord Hodgson in his review of charity law where he warned that treatment of volunteers could reduce public trust in charities. He thought responsibility should lie with charities’ self-regulation but raised the question whether there should be an independent body for external referral.

Following the Volunteer Rights Inquiry, I chaired the Call to Action Progress Group (2011-2014) when I worked for Volunteering England and NCVO. Our final report reviewed, without finding a consensus, the question of whether there was a need for an external regulatory system or whether that would be disproportionate and the problem tackled through good management practice. We recommended organisations sign-up to the 3R Promise (get it Right, offer Reconciliation and take Responsibility) which had been formulated by the Inquiry.

My perception is that volunteering organisations are more conscious of the problem and widely have instituted good practice – including, to my knowledge, St John Ambulance.

But the issue of volunteer rights won’t go away. A small number of volunteers are unfairly treated, heart-breakingly so, and – at least prima facie – in ways that offend public policy, let alone charity governance.

So, I believe, the question remains whether there is a need for a procedure or institution independent of volunteering organisations? Is the Charity Commission’s position, as clarified, sufficient? And if not it, who might take the role, and how?