The economic downturn and the spectre of job substitution

The economic downturn would seem to have created boom time for volunteering. Volunteer Centres are reporting record numbers of volunteer enquiries, and the government has just put millions into a scheme using volunteering as a step toward employability for the long term unemployed.

But unless the sector is careful, this slump could have real risks for volunteer management, and the way volunteering is perceived.

Volunteering and volunteer management have transformed since the last time we were in a recession. Organisations involve volunteers much more professionally, using the gift of time more effectively, and ensuring that volunteering is a positive experience where both organisation and volunteer benefit.

However this step change could well come to a grinding halt as credit crunch sets in, and as the spectre of job substitution rears its ugly head. Money is scarce on the ground for everyone, and as organisations face cutbacks, one solution is to replace our paid staff with volunteers.

Funding bodies push us to reduce our overheads to the absolute minimum, arguing that as the ‘Voluntary’ sector shouldn’t more of our workers be just that?

As funding starts to dry up its easy to see why panicked organisations look at making staff cuts and relying on volunteers to take up the slack. Many would argue that job substitution is a pragmatic solution to a loss of funding.

Faced with having to close down and organisation, or withdraw funding, isn’t it just the lesser of two evils? But what do we loose if we make this compromise? The practice of replacing paid staff with volunteers does not show up our sector in a particularly good light, and does little to persuade the public at large that volunteering is a positive thing to do.

A common argument people use for not volunteering is that organisations exploit volunteers.It becomes harder to argue against this if volunteers are being used purely to save on staff costs.

Using volunteers to fill in key roles risks undermining some of the fundamental things that attract people to volunteering. If a volunteer is carrying a role so vital that the organisation would suffer if they did not come in, then there is no room for any flexibility around what they do, and when they do it.

We risk a situation where we are, essentially, emotionally blackmailing people to carry on offering time. Job substitution is also problematic on a practical level.

A volunteer entering an organisation where they are displacing paid staff is unlikely to be welcomed with open arms by existing workers.It would be hard to persuade a staff member to spend time supporting and developing a volunteer, if they knew that person could oust them at any moment.

Good, sensitive, volunteer management becomes very difficult in these circumstances. Proper planning is impossible when volunteers are being bunged in at the last minute to fill up gaps.

Under these conditions organisations are unlikely to be giving their volunteers a high quality experience, and as a result their volunteers are much less likely to suggest volunteering to their peers.

We also need to think about the kind of sector we all want to work in.Working in the Third Sector is now seen a positive career. Charities attract talented dedicated individuals who want to expand and develop their careers.

If we slip back into a position where job substitution is seen as ok because it’s a means to an end, we stop making a career in the voluntary sector a viable choice, which will inevitably lead to a much less vibrant, sustainable sector.

In the short term, job substitution may seem like the ideal quick fix for organisations having to cut back on services, but if we accept it as a fact of life, we risk short changing all service users in the long term.

Kate Bowgett is the Volunteer Management Advisor for the London Museums Hub and is a board member of the Association of Volunteer Managers

This was originally posted in the Volunteering England Magazine June issue

One thought on “The economic downturn and the spectre of job substitution

  1. Job substitution is a hugely complex area that provokes strong feelings and often considerable tensions.  You’ve done a good job here Kate of explaining some of the issues although I personally find talk of volunteers displacing or volunteers replacing staff more helpful than the blanket term of substitution.That said, I think we also need to consider the issue in considerably more depth to understand the potential implications to our field of following a “job substitution in any form = a bad thing” mantra.  For example, we seriously risk subordinating volunteers to a level beneath that of paid staff and, in doing so, subordinating volunteer managers to lesser professional status than HR managers.I also think we need to recognise that most VIOs are entirely volunteer run.  For them this is a none issue.A complex and important issue that needs much deeper debate.

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