Monday, 2 December 2013

Has the time finally come to stop talking about job substitution?

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.


  1. I agree that a mature discussions needs to develop.

    It's worth reflecting on the fact that paid volunteer managers didn't exist before 1963 - all volunteer management was done by volunteers. There's an argument that over the decades, paid staff have been gradually taking roles traditionally been delivered by volunteers (as the third sector 'professionalises' itself).

    As you highlight in your blog Rob, voluntary sector organisations were started by volunteers, and we need to rethink our strategy for people resourcing to better reflect the vision and mission of these organisations as they seek to respond to the needs of society in the current times.

    One way of looking at this the other way round (seeking to see the wood for the trees) was suggested in the Attend blog:

  2. Thanks for building on my Hot Topic, Rob -- and proving that the concept works in all countries, too. ** Complementing ** and ** supplementing ** the work of paid staff can certainly be two roles for volunteers, but here are some other options for what volunteers can ALSO do:

    - ** experimenting ** with new projects and services
    - ** adapting ** services to the special needs of clients (as in offering it at different times or in different languages)
    - ** advocating ** (you might say "campaigning") for change, especially to government officials
    - ** changing ** the perspective in future planning; ** turning ** sacred cows into hamburgers

    For those who still want to discuss this in terms of employees, how about ** freeing ** paid staff to do the essential tasks for which they were trained? Or ** stretching ** the budget to do more than it could without volunteers?

    How we express the role of volunteers opens us to more creative ways of designing the work we ask them to do.

  3. I would be very pleased to see the last of the ‘complement and supplement’ doctrine! It conjures for me images of volunteers being ‘handmaidens’ or ‘ladies bountiful’ – as though volunteering was exclusively a female endeavour. (I wonder what are the equivalent terms for men who volunteer.) I am also reminded of the 19th century charity model of welfare and social work, where genteel handouts contrasted to the activism of settlement workers, who made a real difference to relieving poverty.
    Although your question here relates to job substitution I reckon that issue is part of a larger struggle for the voluntary and community sector to gain recognition and respect of governments and business sector. I mean real recognition and respect, and not the platitudes and blandishments which have similar connotations to ‘complement and supplement’.
    Yes, we need to move on and grow up. It would right in the spirit of historical examples to take up the challenge, and the struggle. I like to think we’ve already started.

  4. Horses for courses. So, over 28 years in a small mobile play project (now deceased alas but alive in other ways) we always had staff (at least, nearly always) BUT we could not have survived or run without volunteers of whom I was one, designated not only a trustee and on-bus volunteer, but designated MD. Why? Because we needed one, but such money as we had was scarce so it went to front-line leadership on the bus, playleaders and playworkers, drivers etc. On the bus itself, the session leader lead, including me and other trustees volunteering. The Partnership was key, it worked because of clear guidelines, equality and mutual respect. We all had job des, all were covered by terms and conditions, policies etc. It was possible, and happened, that volunteers might lead a session if need be. The project never would have happened anyway with we volunteers, we made it happen, raising the £1.3m spent over those 28 years and generating the at-least 3:1 ratio of vol£ of GBP£. That is what we recorded deliberately to emphasise to all funders and local govt meanies that our money was better than theirs. 3,600 sessions recorded plus 96,000+ attendances. Professional? Indeed. That is what is key, that volunteers properly trained and motivated and included are pro in the best sense of the word.

  5. Now, in this age of coup-by-coalition, many great initiatives have lost/ are losing/ will lose their funding. Much has gone to the wall. This is a special era, and is it time to prepare for the recovery (ours not Osborne's)? Sorry, it must mean a return to the days when there were no pots of funding at the outset, only value's-worth volunteer resource for many areas of civil society. We've been there before. The Children's Play movement, Youth Work, and much else. Remember, when the NHS failed in 1948 to take up family planning as a health right (religious and social pressure) it was the FPA which developed a network of 1200 clinic across the country which the NHS only took up decades later. One of the greatest rights triumphs, FPA ladies and all.

    I'm acting chair of a local youth rights project, after huge silences, contrary decisions and shilly-shallying, West Sussex has decided to pull its staff out of our info shop (prime high street area to go to prison-camp looking centre not so well sited ....). We're one of 42 projects now deserted out of 58. Many are closing or have done so, 3 in this town alone. Another one-third of staff to go, probably over 4 years, 65% cut at least. One key lesson - make sure you have an independent status and constitution because those with "county constitutions" have found their licences revoked and have been turfed out). At this time, yes we are looking for alternative funding but also, we have ADDED two evening sessions by recruiting 7 really good new volunteers. If we can afford to add a paid worker, yes we will. But this is the wave of out future. We are installing a disabled persons loo and baby changing facility, looking to open more and different sessions. Collaboration with others is key - we're going to work with a great young people's enterprise project in another, nearby town, there is an under-used youth bus in our area which we are going to work with, and we've given free space to a couple of youth consultation workers who are giving us their time also. Will it all work? No bloody idea but hell will we let a load of greedy bankers and corporates inflict defeat on us or the kids for whom we exist.

    Who gives a flying ferret about their platitudes, we all got on board the "recognition in high places" wagon, it never had any wheels to come off. Children's play, the first to be cut, the one most subject to "virtue and motherhood" laudations nimbly trotted out with every photo opportunity. It got us nowhere.

    One other area. Look to the law. In youth and play work, there s508 of the Education Act 1996 with s507a and 507b added in 2006. North Somerset LEA just lost case in Appeal Court over 72% cuts in youth budget because of lack of consultation and discrimination.

    The truth about being a vice-chair. It's like being the Prince of Wales. I suppose being acting chair is like being king before coronation....? Anyway, you wait around for years ..... possibly not wanting it?????

  6. Posting on behalf of Kirsty McDowell:

    "To play devil's advocate for a minute, I think one good thing to come from the "no job substitution" rhetoric is that more people have started to realise that you generally can't simply take a staff role (often a full time one at that), rename it as a volunteer role and hey presto, you'll be able to find a volunteer to do it. If we can manage to keep increasing awareness of the fact that volunteer roles often need to be different to staff roles (not less skilled, not less important, and not necessarily different in what they achieve, but different none the less) I think that would be a good thing to come of situation."