Friday, 11 May 2012

We need to think differently about job substitution

In April Volunteering England, in conjunction with other strategic partners of the Office For Civil Society,  published "A Guide To Avoiding Job Substitution".  The guide aims to "help organisations ensure volunteers are not substituting for paid staff when services are being cut".

This whole issue is a thorny, complex and emotive one.  It is an issue that mainly effects voluntary and public sector organisations and it isn't a new one.  Sadly it is also an issue that many in the sector, including volunteer managers, shy away from.  Because of its emotive, complex and challenging nature, job substitution is often a topic that, if given any time at conferences and the like, provokes such strong views that few want to face the conflict it raises.

Last summer I wrote an article for The Guardian with colleague Lynn Blackadder entitled "Dispelling the myths around job substitution by volunteers".  Lynn and I wrote the piece to try and constructively help organisations facing the reality of cuts to think through the issues associated with volunteers doing work that was once done by paid staff.  Out intent was good but, as you'll see from some of the comments, we were criticised none the less.

So Volunteering England are to be commended for taking a constructive stance on the issue.  Their guidance is sound, if perhaps a bit brief given the complexity of the matter.  Their exhortation to plan well in advance of any changes from paid to volunteer 'staff' is certainly one that is not heard enough.

What I am less comfortable with in Volunteering England's document are some of the underlying assumptions about volunteering and job substitution.  These aren't unique to VE, I've come across them before, but I do think they need highlighting and perhaps challenging if we are to get the matter in perspective.  I want to pick out the three main ones.

“Volunteer motives vary, but depriving paid workers of an income is not one of them.”
- Noble, Rogers and Fryar.

First up, right in the first line of the Volunteering England document, it says the issue has become critical.  Really?  Is it that serious?  However challenging an issue it is, I don't see or hear of it so often that I'd say it's critical, and I like to think I have my finger on the pulse of volunteerism.  Sure there have been some high profile cases - notably Surrey libraries - but there is also a lot of baseless scaremongering too, usually union driven and linking a modest increase in the number of people volunteering with an inevitable removal of all paid work in an area.

With the levels of paid staff growing again in the sector (after a 40% rise in the first decade of this century) and with volunteering levels largely static, the statistics suggest it isn't that big a deal.  In fact, what may be a bigger issue is volunteers being replaced by paid staff!

Second, the term job substitution doesn't help.  It implies that one volunteer can be brought in to substitute for one employee.  This almost never happens and demonstrates a misunderstanding about volunteering.  

In the article Lynn and I wrote for The Guardian we talked about job displacement and job replacement rather than job substitution:

• Displacement – when paid staff make way for (are displaced) so that volunteers can fill their roles. 
• Replacement – when work previously done by paid staff is reallocated to volunteers, i.e volunteers replace employees as the means of delivering a service.

In my view this is a much more helpful way of looking at the situation.  If paid staff are being deliberately removed so volunteers can do the work instead then I think most people would have an issue.  If, however, the paid staff are going - perhaps because of inevitable cuts - and the choice is to stop the service or bring volunteers in to pick up some of the work paid staff used to do, then I'm sure most people would recognise that the latter option is preferable to the work stopping all together.

To be fair to Volunteering England, this terminology of replacement and displacement does occur in their guidance and they do helpfully make the point that the boundaries between the two can sometimes be very thin.  But why wasn't this terminology used throughout?  Why do people who are supposed to be standing up for volunteering insist on using unhelpful 'substitution' language instead of making a clear argument about the issues?

Take the example from page one of VE's guidance:

"There are a range of scenarios that could be considered job substitution. At one extreme, an organisation may decide to cut jobs and recruit volunteers to fill the gaps. At the other, when a service has been withdrawn due to funding cuts, members of its community or service-users may volunteer themselves to run services which meet similar needs." 
"The first case is clearly a direct replacement of paid staff, and it is therefore likely that the organisation would receive objections from staff and trade unions, and find that volunteers do not want to be involved. In the second case, volunteers are, to some extent, providing services previously delivered by paid staff, but now as a new group taking over the service. This service could, however, be significantly different from the one delivered by paid staff." 

The first case, when looked at as job substitution, may appear to be a case of volunteers displacing paid staff.  But will it be one volunteer for one employee?  Very unlikely.  And what if this were a case of replacement rather than displacement?  Looking at it that way puts a different complexion on the situation.

Interestingly, the logic of the second case suggests it would be acceptable for a public service to make staff redundant, convert to a co-operative set up staffed with volunteers and that would be alright!

Third, the Volunteering England guidance states that:

One of the key principles of this charter is that the involvement of volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff.
This is common language around job substitution and it's language I detest.  It totally fails to recognise the distinct value that volunteering can bring compared to paid staff.  It dismisses anything unique and precious about volunteering and simply subordinates it to a second-class activity next to paid work

I've worked in programmes where volunteers had a credibility in the eyes of the clients that paid staff could never have, a credibility that comes from the client viewing the volunteer as someone who wants to spend time with them, not someone who is paid to spend time with them.  That is distinctive to volunteers.  It isn't about them supplementing or complementing paid staff, it is about them bringing something to the organisation that paid staff cannot.

As long as we perpetuate this second class status through our use of language, then volunteering will bee seen as nothing more than the poor cousin to paid work, and volunteer managers as poor cousins to other professionals.

In conclusion then, please be clear that I am not having a dig at Volunteering England.  As I said at the start, I commend them for publishing this guidance.  Rather, I am commenting on the philosophical basis on which their guidance and many other people's practice is based.  I am doing this to stimulate debate, to challenge thinking and, above all, to try and help us all (myself included) to do a better job of standing up for volunteering in the challenging environment we face.

So what do you think?

Do you agree?

Am I talking a load of codswallop?

Please don't be silent, join the debate by leaving a comment below.

As this is an emotive issue and one I have seen result in hurtful comments in the past, I will please ask for comments to be respectful of others views, even if they don't agree with you.  Thank you.


  1. Very well stated, Rob! As always, vocabulary is critical in conveying meaning, whether the concept is "substitution" or "supplementing." I also dealt with the fallacy of thinking of volunteers as able to replace paid staff 1 to 1 in a 2009 Hot Topic about budget cutting: I also distinguished crisis or emergency response to maintaining an inadequate budget.

    One more point to add into the mix: how do the issues change when we are discussing government jobs? In other words, when the volunteers are also the taxpayers funding the jobs that are being eliminated? Who says that a government job is a right? Against whom are we protesting when money is tight?

  2. Posted on behalf of Andy Fryar of OzVPM:

    Thanks Rob for raising this very important subject.

    I remember Linda Graff once challenging an audience on this very topic when speaking about some personal experiences in a hospice setting where staff had been slashed, and where there was no likelihood of those staff being replaced due to diminishing funding.

    I guess one of the points I’d like to raise is that very often in workshops when I touch on this type of issue, I get the almost mandatory response from VM’s of “you can’t replace staff with volunteers” and I think that this auto-response is far from helpful in raising the debate. So thank you for framing the argument so well, let’s hope it gets some dialogue happening.

    Andy Fryar, OzVPM

  3. Thanks Rob. It is indeed a sensitive issue. I do agree that the phrase 'job substitution' is a highly emotive one which can cloud the issues.

    The trouble is that we are talking here about politics as much as we are talking about volunteering. People have strong views and expectations about what central and local governments should deliver. Any intended cut in services may produce different responses: some will want to campaign and argue the principle at stake. Others will want to take a pragmatic view about what is needed and how if can be delivered (eg by volunteers).

    I have sympathy with both stances. But I guess if we rush to a pragmatic view too soon it signals that we are giving up our democratic right to challenge government decisions.

    Another issue concerns who it is that is proposing the involvement of volunteers. The more this is directed by governments the more uncomfortable I am about it!

    Fiona Liddell (WCVA)