Friday, 21 October 2011

Are Volunteer Centre brokerage services under threat?

There is a great discussion going on over on i-volunteer about the perceived threat to Volunteer Centre's from the current growth in online brokerage services.

I would encourage readers of my blog to go and take a look at the full discussion.  However, I also want to share my response to it here so a wider audience can see my views on the issue.  as ever please do share your thoughts in response by posting comments below.


Brokerage may the first of the six core functions of a Volunteer Centre (VC) but that doesn't make the it the most important.
For a long time I have said that brokerage is actually the outcome of other VC core functions. Brokerage services depend upon VCs working with Volunteer Involving Organisations (VIOs) to develop meaningful opportunities that people want to do, helping VIOs to develop their practice in engaging people effectively as volunteers, and marketing volunteering locally so people know about the option of volunteering.
Brokerage alone does not help address a key (if not the key) problem facing volunteering today - a lack of suitable opportunities that people actually want to do, that they can fit in around their busy and complex lives and that still meets the needs of VIOs. we know that via VCs, interest in volunteering went up 87% a couple of years ago. There hasn't been anything like the same level of increase in volunteering according to the citizenship survey. That speaks volumes. People want to volunteer, they see what's on offer and they say 'no thanks'.
The growth of online brokerage site is not a threat to VCs but an opportunity. An opportunity for them to show the added value of what they do. An opportunity to show how they develop volunteering, not just broker it. An opportunity to show their strengths in supporting people into volunteering who wouldn't use online brokerage systems.
Sadly a number of factors work against VCs in this.
One is that they are largely funded (if they are still funded at all) to put bums on seats and broker people into placements. Until funders of all kinds realise that successful brokerage relies upon these other elements (good practice, marketing, opportunity development etc.) they are always going to struggle to change, especially in hard financial times.
A second factor is that this funding regime focuses VCs onto brokerage can create a victim mentality when other providers come along with new models (including online) and get funding for them.
And you can understand why.
If I run a VC and I do so on what little funding I can get from local government and some whizzy new media types come along and set up an online brokerage system that barely does half of what I do but gets a small fortune from government (or the lottery or whoever) for it, I'd be narked too. And that's what's happening. In fact, government want those new media types to be given - for free - the opportunities VCs post to Do-It so they (the new media types) can broker the opportunities to organisations who pay them for the privilege. That's not fair when VCs work hard to source the opportunities and someone else gets paid for filling them.

[See my post on The Giving White Paper earlier this year for more information on this]
And VlOs don't care so long as they get volunteers.
A third factor is that as VCs become part of other organisations (commonly Councils for Voluntary Service - CVS), often all that remains unique about their volunteering infrastructure role is brokerage. So that's all they have left to focus on. The development and marketing is done by the host agency staff and that's normally aimed at developing voluntary sector organisations not volunteering (which happens across all three sectors). The evidence shows that independent VCs provide a broader range of services, more of the core functions, and are better funded than those run by other bodies. Yet only a third of VCs are independent agencies compared to half five years ago. And with the cuts, that number is probably even lower.
As you can see this is a complex and emotive issue - I know, I lived and breathed it for six years. Some will blame Volunteering England, some will blame government, some will blame the new players on the brokerage block, some will blame everyone.
Who is to blame is not the point. What is done next is the key thing.
For me one of those key things has to be much closer work/dialogue between VCs and VIOs. I remember VCs refusing to go to conferences with VIOs because they didn't see they had anything in common with them. That was never true and is quite frankly a suicidal attitude in this day and age. VIOs need volunteers. VIOs need support to grow their good practice and develop opportunities suitable for 21st century volunteers. If VCs don't help them, someone else will.
The world is a different place from just a few years ago and the old models of doing things need to change to fit that world.
VC brokerage may be under threat but complaining about it won't solve the problem.

1 comment:

  1. " I remember VCs refusing to go to conferences with VIOs because they didn't see they had anything in common with them."

    Good heavens! I don't think my local VC would behave in such a shortsighted way - they've been very helpful in being willing to come out and actually look at what some of our volunteers do in order to make themselves more efficient at matching volunteers to roles.

    My personal view is that the population recruited via VCs is very different from those who come forward in response to online recruiting & that we need both/and not either/or.