Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Whisper it quietly, Jimmy Saville was a volunteer

We are all too aware of the recent celebrity child abuse scandals in the UK, in particular the appalling case of Jimmy Saville. Saville abused hundreds of people over many years with many a blind eye being turned to his behaviour by the media, police, regulators and other official bodies.

The world of volunteer management has escaped lightly. Few have sought to draw the connection between Saville’s behaviour and his status as a volunteer. It has had passing mention in the media coverage but scrutiny of volunteering has been scant.

Just one instance has come across my radar, an article in The Guardian at the end of February 2015, which highlights the Lampard Review of the NHS in regard to Saville and in particular the concerns about volunteer management in the NHS.

The article notes that Lampard highlights four key issues.

First, that the risk to patients of being abused could increase as more volunteers are brought in to work in an increasingly cash-strapped health service.

“They [volunteers] undertake a much wider variety of roles and often have much closer contact with patients than in the past.”

Second, that volunteer management isn’t taken seriously enough at a senior level within the NHS.

“Many NHS volunteer programmes are not managed and overseen at a senior level and do not have the management resources they need.”

Third, the need for effective screening of volunteers, with Lampard reportedly calling on the NHS to amend regulations to make sure staff and volunteers were subjected to criminal records checks every three years.

Finally, The Guardian says that: 

“Lampard also raised concerns about the lack of any cohesive structure within NHS hospitals for managing visits by celebrities, important fundraisers and donors despite the publicity around Savile’s decades of abuse.”

These are not four discrete issues, they are inter-related, so let me try and unpick them a bit.

To start with, an increase in volunteers within any organisation does not automatically increase risk. What does often increase the risk is poorly thought out reasons and strategy for volunteer involvement (often a consequence of a lack of strategic management engagement in the volunteer programme) and ineffective screening, often borne out of poorly resourced volunteer management structures.

Good volunteer programmes don’t just take anyone off the street and put them in unsupervised contact with vulnerable people. We should not assume that just because volunteers are unpaid they are incompetent or inherently a risky proposition. But good programmes need resourcing if they are to do their job properly and they need to be properly integrated into the whole organisation. This requires CEOs, boards and the like to properly understand and engage with volunteering as a strategic priority, not just say how essential volunteers are as they issue warmly worded statements in Volunteers’ Week.

This is perhaps the most fundamental issue Lampard highlights and one that needs action not just within the NHS but in many Volunteer Involving Organisations across all sectors, including the Voluntary and Community Sector. 

The point made by Lampard about celebrities and major donors not being properly supervised and their involvement not properly structured in the NHS is a great example. 

Throughout my career in the voluntary sector I have come across fundraisers, CEOs and senior managers who dismiss out of hand any suggestion that good volunteer management practices should be applied to the involvement of high profile supporters, despite their status as volunteers. Why? Because often they see volunteer management as concerned with the nice to haves, the little old ladies making the tea, and not with the important work of more serious concerns like celebrity endorsement of the cause. 

The Jimmy Saville situation highlights the stupidity of this and the irresponsible thinking behind it. To continue such a train of thought borders on the negligent. Yet still that line is seen as acceptable in fundraising departments and sector senior teams. It is surely time for this to be challenged!

As a quick aside, for some insightful and intelligent thinking on the issues of celebrities as volunteers I commend you to Eileen Hammond’s excellent book for the Directory of Social Change, “Patrons, Presidents and Personalities”.

So far I have highlighted issues that I think the Lampard review gets right. Senior management needs to take seriously the strategic involvement of volunteers, resource it properly and organisations need to stop seeing celebrity volunteers as having a protected, special status that allows them to operate outside of existing good practice.

I want to conclude with one aspect I think Lampard gets wrong, calling for the Department of Health to change regulations so staff and volunteers undergo DBS checks every three years. I’m not going to go into huge detail here because I’ve blogged on this previously. My concern is that the sole focus on DBS checks will not result in better safety for NHS patients who have volunteers assigned to them. Jimmy Saville would have always passed a DBS check because ehe was never caught. Robust screening goes way beyond a criminal record check and so should this recommendation from Lampard.

Returning to where I started, the scandal of Jimmy Saville and others being allowed to abuse people for so long behind the screen of their celebrity status is rightly abhorrent to us all. That it was allowed to continue for so long is deplorable. Yet thank goodness volunteer management has not been thrust to the fore of these stories. I fear the field would have been exposed for its failings, mainly a consequence not of volunteer managers themselves but of the layers of management in Volunteer Involving Organisations across all sectors who fail to see volunteering as a strategic priority. 

Let’s hope it doesn't take another scandal like Saville for that situation to change and volunteer involvement to be taken seriously by those who should know better.

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