Job substitution is a theme I've written about quite a few times (see these examples from this very blog). For those unfamiliar with the term, job substitution is used in the volunteering world to describe a situation where volunteers replace paid staff. It is a flawed term (as I argued in a posting back in May 2012) and it leads to a parallel and worryingly common belief that volunteers should only complement and supplement the work of paid staff. This position is even enshrined in a charter between Volunteering England (now NCVO) and The Trade Union's Congress (TUC).
It is this doctrine of 'complement and supplement' that I want to focus on in this post.
There are two reasons for this.
First, I attended a joint meeting of EVDC and NNVIA last week where we were invited to suggest policy positions NCVO might take with government in the run up to the UK's 2015 general election. One of the tables said that we might have to change our position on job substitution as it no longer matched the reality that many volunteer involving organisations (VIOs) face. Too many VIOs just cannot afford the levels of paid staff they once had and volunteers need to be a realistic option for delivering the organisation's mission in future, something the 'complement and supplement' position can make difficult to consider.
Instead of disagreement there seemed to be general agreement in the room.
To me this was brilliant news. It signalled that finally people might be ready to have a grown up and intelligent discussion about the roles of paid staff and volunteers in organisations. It signalled that the days of people being slapped down for trying to have a debate might finally be over. It signalled that instead of a wall of silence when this issue gets raised in blogs, volunteer managers might actually be ready to get stuck into the complex and delicate issues involved.
The second reason for writing about the issue again was Susan Ellis' excellent December 2013 Hot Topic, "Don't Let The History Made By Volunteers Fall Through The Cracks Of Time".
I was recently running a workshop in London with a predominantly female group. Over lunch, discussion turned to the 'complement and supplement' doctrine with many people saying how they completely agreed with it. So I asked the women present if they thought they would have the right to vote if we'd argued that the suffragettes should only have complemented and supplemented the work of paid staff.
In the UK, women have the right to vote because of the dedication, hard work and sacrifice of volunteer suffragettes. They weren't paid and to suggest that they should only have complemented and supplemented paid staff is an insult to those involved in the suffrage movement.
You see, as Susan Ellis is fond of saying, nobody gets paid to start a revolution. Social change happens, more often than not, because of the efforts and sometimes sacrifices of volunteers. They may not be called volunteers, they may not be recognised by history as volunteers, but do not be fooled into thinking that the major changes in our society are made exclusively or mainly by paid staff.
In history, as Susan argues, volunteers have played a crucial role in shaping the world we live in. If those individuals had sat around waiting for someone to be paid to make the change or had decided their efforts should only complement and supplement the work of paid staff then we would still be in the dark ages.
In modern society we face challenges unprecedented in human history, from global poverty & hunger to an ageing population, from wealth inequality to the environment. By suggesting that the efforts of volunteers should only 'complement and supplement' the efforts of paid staff working on these challenges is to vastly reduce the pool of knowledge, talent and capacity to find solutions. That is to all our detriments.
My sincere hope is that as we enter a new year the time really has come for the debate about job substitution to move on and grow up.