Thursday, 16 April 2015

What I think about the latest Tory proposal on volunteering

Last Friday (10 April 2015) David Cameron announced that if the Conservatives win the UK General Election on 7th May 2015 they would introduce a new legal right for employees in the public sector and large private firms to have three days a year of paid leave in order to volunteer.

Recognising the benefits of employee volunteering, many groups were quick to endorse the proposals.

CIPD (the professional body for Human Resources) welcomed the idea as did the Confederation of British Industry.

Amusingly, the trade union movement - who are usually so quick to criticise volunteers as the enemy of paid workers - quickly backtracked on their initial cautious welcome when it became apparent volunteering for a union would not be considered under the scheme.

Many in the Voluntary and Community Sector have also warmly welcomed Cameron’s proposal.

NCVO’s Chief Executive Sir Stuart Etherington blogged on why it would be good for business whilst Kristen Stephenson helpfully outlined why employee volunteering can be a good thing more broadly.

The Charities Aid Foundation also gave their endorsement as did the sector Chief Executives body ACEVO, whose Director of Policy, Asheem Singh, was quoted in Civil Society saying:

“This is exciting news – it recognises the crucial role of charities in building a better society. The workplace is a new frontier for social action, and this new legal right will help support a new generation of socially responsible citizens.”

However, at an event on Monday some senior fundraisers (not volunteer managers, fundraisers!) called into question the viability of the Conservative proposal whilst both CSV and Timebank have made the point that it needs properly thinking though and resourcing if it is to work.

The Association of Volunteer Managers have said nothing.

So what do I think?

Let’s start with the positive. To an extent I agree that anything which promotes and encourages volunteering is to be welcomed. However, I have two big caveats to this.

First, the solution is not always more volunteers. As I said when I blogged on the Labour Party’s proposals for volunteering back in 2014:

“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.”

Second, initiatives to increase the supply of volunteers completely fail to recognise that the demand needs to be there for these people. Meaningful opportunities need creating to accommodate all these additional time givers and ensure they have a great experiences as volunteers. A shortcut to disaster would be to engage loads of new people, manage them badly, give them a terrible experience and send them on their way. Do you imaging many (any?) of them would be keen to volunteer again? Moreover, as the Boston Globe highlighted recently, employee volunteering can be more of a burden than a help to many good causes.

So, if that’s the positive (!), what about the negative?

First, the Conservative proposals are yet another example of a political party policy initiative on volunteering that looks good but fails to acknowledge that investment is needed to make it happen. Volunteering is freely given but not cost free. As I just noted, if all these additional volunteers are going to come forward opportunities need creating, organisational cultures need to be changed to be more open towards volunteers and resource (time, money, will to act etc.) needs finding to organise it all and maximise the potential impact.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Tory announcement is the failure of most of the main sector bodies to even acknowledge that for the idea to work something needs to change. Whether that something is the attitude of leaders in the sector to properly understand and support volunteering, or it is funding for more volunteer management resource, or both, nobody except Timebank or CSV appears to have even raised this issue. Worse, the professional association for volunteer managers has been totally silent.

Second, and related, is the issue of infrastructure. It has long been accepted that good employee volunteering happens when a competent broker gets involved. This broker negotiates the needs of the good cause with the aims of the employer and matches the two up to best mutual benefit. 

Sadly, the last government’s austerity agenda slashed funding for national and local volunteering infrastructure to the point where the capacity to deliver something like Cameron’s new proposals barely exists compared to five years ago. Not only have the organisations closed or significantly downsized but much of the knowledge and expertise built up over many years has left the roles that were made redundant. 

Perhaps there is no better illustration of the short-sightedness of dismantling the sector's support infrastructure whilst expecting volunteering to flourish.

Third, and finally, what is acceptable volunteering? Set aside the old debate about whether paid time off for volunteering is actually volunteering (and I think it is - is paid time off for holiday not holiday?) but the position on union volunteering makes it clear that the Conservatives view some volunteering as more valid than other ways of giving time. This is not a new issue but one that rarely gets thought through. 

Consider these two previous examples:

  1. The Local Government Association (LGA) proposing that people get a discount on their Council Tax if they volunteer, an idea that seems to have stalled when it became apparent how much record keeping and administration is required to assess and approve what it valid volunteering and how much time people give to those causes.
  2. The last Labour government’s wizard wheeze to speed up citizenship applications for those immigrants who volunteer, an idea which collapsed for the exact same reason as the LGA’s idea.

So what will constitute valid volunteering under Cameron’s grand new volunteering plan? Who will assess and approve this? Who will record how much of those three days gets used? What will happen to people’s legal right to time off to volunteer for other causes? These questions are all unanswered and until they are addressed I cannot endorse the idea at all.

Of course these proposals may only see the light of day if we get a Conservative government on May 8th. Given the closeness of this election that seems an unlikely outcome. I can see the idea being dropped as quickly as possible in any coalition negotiations. 

So maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about the Tories and their new idea, but we definitely should worry at the response - or lack thereof - of the majority of sector bodies. This is the first chance in a post-Volunteering England age to see how our national infrastructure representatives speak up for the realities of volunteer management. I think it's pretty clear that with a couple of notable exceptions (CSV and Timebank) they failed the test. 

Let’s hope they do better with whatever government we do get.

They couldn’t do much worse could they?