It’s volunteering Jim, but not as we know it…

  • ‘Patchy’ performance by the volunteer broker scheme.
  • Blunkett plan to boost volunteers.
  • Charities ‘failing to reach out to younger supporters.’
  • Youth Volunteering Scheme.
  • Volunteering down in 2009.

    These are 5 headlines from this week Third Sector (21 Jul 09).  I can’t remember there being so many stories about volunteering in one issue and the first three were on the first 3 pages!

    Any publicity is good publicity as they say, however, I can’t help but feel a little down about these headlines.

    From someone on the outside with no knowledge as to the reasons why the brokerage scheme to help long-term unemployed back into work through volunteering was set up in the way it was, it seems like a complete botch job, an utter waste of money and a clear lack of understanding of the nature of volunteering.  I really find this surprising given the players involved. 

    The next two stories suggest that we’re not doing enough to promote volunteering to people close to retirement or the young.  However I look at the money pumped in to supporting youth volunteering for example through v, the work of Youthnet and RockCorps, hear anecdotal evidence from our peers and wonder is this really the case? 

    Those of you on UKVPMs have no doubt followed the debate about youths ‘volunteering’ to get their travel passes back.  Is this another case of the definition of volunteering being ‘stretched’ to fit the needs of an initiative rather than the primary reason of volunteering?

    Finally we have the Citizenship Survey reporting that the number of people formally volunteering is down.  All the volunteer managers I know have found completely the opposite.

    There seems to be a thread running through these stories to me.  There seems to me to be a clear lack of understanding of the nature of volunteering from Government and people holding purse strings which is being perpetuated by the need for organisations to chase pots of money to stay in existence.

    Am I being naïve in dreaming of a Utopia where funding is sought/available with the primary aim of supporting & developing volunteering, not funding schemes where volunteering is used as a tool to support the latest initiative no matter how worthy?  Tail wagging dog?  Square pegs in round holes?

    Volunteering can be a part of the solution in helping long term unemployed into work, for engendering a sense of community and self worth in youths and for enabling people who have retired to continue to contribute to society.  But these are not the primary aims of volunteering.  We involve volunteers to add value to our organisations, to help us do more.

    Can we as a sector unite and stand up for what we believe volunteering to be?  To stand up to Government and stop volunteering being used as a political football?  Let’s get things the right way round.  Properly supported volunteering can play a powerful role in all the above if we understand the nature of volunteering and the part it can play.  It’s not the solution main/only to curing all society’s ills.

    9 thoughts on “It’s volunteering Jim, but not as we know it…

    1. As someone with inside knowledge of the DWP volunteer brokerage scheme let me assure you Sean that this week’s Third Sector article is as fine a piece of journalistic fabrication as you are likely to find outside of the red tops.  Things are nowhere near as bad as they are being portrayed by a sector press who seem intent on bringing people down not celebrating success. Maybe I’m naive but journalism is about reporting news – good and bad – not fabricating it. Thanks therefore go to the Guardian newspaper who have so far run positive stories about the scheme and the difference volunteering is making to those unlucky enough to be unemployed during the recession.  This is the real story and its a shame people aren’t interested in it.

    2. I think these are the two most recent articles in the Guardian covering the scheme:A helping spare handA brokerage scheme has been launched to place jobseekers as third sector volunteers and boost their employment prospectsArmy of volunteersThe head of conservation charity BTCV tells Alison Benjamin why he is determined that the once-shy organisation should march in the vanguard of attempts to solve the problem of youth unemployment

    3. One of the reasons that volunteering is so well though of by government is the ‘added value’ it gives to the volunteer. My concern is that in the rush to increase the number of volunteers agencies have lost track of the need to manage the increased quantity. A role which is not undertaken by the head of a QUANGO but often by a volunteer co-ordinator trying to do four jobs at once.  It is to be hoped that some of the Capacity Builders money will find its way to supporting those of us at the blunt end.

    4. I think the AVM poll needs an extra option. There is clearly an increase in enquiries about volunteering, but this is not matched by the conversion to actual volunteering (demonstrated by the results of the Active Citizenship survey and some follow-up work undertaken by VC volunteers). And until there is more investment in following enquiries through to placement, and support to increase the number of opportunities widely available and accessible to potential volunteers, this country will not be able to make the best of the opportunities and challenges of the recession and an increased demand of the voluntary sector to help out.

    5. Hi Kerry,I think that is a really useful distinction to make between interest in volunteering in England and actually volunteering. For the purposes of this poll, we were aiming to get a better sense of whether people think there’s been an increase or not in actual volunteering, not just interest/enquiries in to volunteering.The issue of whether volunteering infrastructure (supported volunteering where supports available to volunteers every step in the process from recruitment, training and support in the role) can meet the demand from volunteers, has been highlighted by many in volunteer management for many years now. Most would agree that improvements in the volunteering infrastructure would naturally translate in to more sustained and fulfilling volunteering.Patrick

    6. I’m pleased to see Third Sector articles prompting discussion and debate, but as the editor of the magazine I can’t let Rob Jackson get away with the unsubstantiated assertion that our stories are fabricated. The article he refers to is properly sourced and balanced, and the views expressed are those of the people quoted and not the magazine. If people were approaching us saying the volunteer brokerage scheme was going swimmingly, we would report that as well. But  they’re not. If Rob has the inside knowledge of the scheme that he claims to have, why doesn’t he share it with us? Yah-boo allegations about red top journalism are a poor substitute for real argument. The reference to a sector press “intent on bringing people down, not celebrating success” is a red herring. Our job is to try to convey a rounded picture of what is actually going on in the voluntary sector – the difficult things as well as the good things. Our readers wouldn’t thank us for perpetuating the kind of dewy-eyed version of events that Rob seems to have in mind.

    7. Hello SeanI would be interested to hear more about why you think the volunteering brokerage scheme is a botch job, a complete waste of money and doesn’t demonstrate an understanding of volunteering. I have been heavily involved in setting up the operation of the scheme, and i would, as you might guess, disagree strongly.Whilst it has proved challenging to get the scheme operational, i believe it is of great value – to volunteering and the sector. It is direct investment in volunteering brokerage, which i feel is a much valued and needed service. It offers a chance for people who have been unemployed to volunteer – helping to develop skills and also supporting volunteer involving organisations. It is entirely voluntary on the part of the potential volunteer and is a new route to volunteering and the potential that brings for thousands of people. And it also helps advisers in the local Job Centre Plus to recognise the value of volunteering.It is still early days for the scheme, and i think that the article in Third Sector doesn’t recognise the really positive aspects of what has happened to get hundreds of local brokers up and running. However, i believe the scheme itself is really valuable and offers huge potential.I’d be interested to hear your thoughts as to why this isn’t the case.Simon

    8.  Hi Simon,Many thanks for your comments.  I wrote that the scheme seems to be a botch job etc etc.  Playing with semantics perhaps, however, I do believe it would be wrong of me to slam the scheme without being in possession of the facts and that was not my intention.  Perhaps I should have added ‘Judging from the article, the scheme seems…’I am heartened to hear from your and Rob Jackson’s comments that the scheme is  fairing better than the article would suggest.  Volunteering can and should play a role in supporting people whether that be helping the job term unemployed into work, developing confidence, new skills etc and this scheme can only benefit that.However, my concerns about this scheme and other schemes is that they seem to place the needs of the groups volunteering (e.g. unemployed, youth etc) before the needs of the organizations involving volunteers.  It seems completely the wrong way around to me.  It’s like building a great transport system and getting people on board only to find that once they reach the destination there is little or nothing there for them to do. Yes let’s build the transport system (the brokerage scheme) but let’s build the infrastructure first (properly supported volunteer roles) or at least get it in place before putting people on the train!We do need to be flexible and open to engaging volunteers to meet their motivations for volunteering and properly support them, but at the end of the day we primarily involve volunteers to support our organizations, not to support the volunteer.  Incidentally I am really annoyed when I hear calls that we need to be more inventive/creative/flexible to attract volunteers.  We are doing all those things!! Let’s celebrate that fact!I really do think that this scheme does have great potential and hope it succeeds.  The funding and the recognition of the benefits of volunteering is also a welcome boost.  However, I am increasingly annoyed/worried that the focus is being placed more on the volunteers rather than the organizations involving volunteers.  Surely this is perpetuating the problems of under investment in volunteer management.  Is it also contributing to a situation where we have more people interested in volunteering that we have the capacity to manage, thus leading to a lot of disappointed and let down people?A question about the scheme:  Why haven’t existing brokerage networks like the volunteer centres for example been used rather than getting hundreds of local brokers up and running?Once again thank you for your comments Simon.  I very much appreciate your response. Kind regards, Sean 

    9.  Hello SeanI am happy to debate the merits, or otherwise, of the scheme!I have much sympathy with what you are saying, and I do generally agree with you. When the scheme has been discussed in Third Sector in the past, we have tried to emphasise that supporting volunteering is about much more than just brokerage. It should also link in with the other core functions of volunteering infrastructure, such as Good Practice, Developing Opportunities, etc.I would also point out that there are other initiatives that are planned to help organisations and volunteer managers, such as the Volunteer Managers Fund. I recognise that this may not be perfect, but it is some recognition of the points that you make.However, I do believe that the Brokerage Scheme has merit, and I think Volunteering England are right to be involved. Hopefully it will lead to much stronger support for volunteering in the future, and is certainly a huge opportunity for the Volunteer Centre Network.With regards to your question, I probably wasn’t clear enough. The scheme is being delivered through existing organisations. Where Volunteering England and v are delivering, it is directly through Volunteer Centres and others are involved indirectly. BTCV and CSV are delivering through their existing organisations in the areas where they are best placed to do so. There are probably around 100 Volunteer Centres involved in delivering the scheme, and the challenges have been around getting all those different, independent organisations signed up, meeting the requirements of the scheme and undertaking the operational requirements of a national programme.I have been personally impressed by the way the Volunteer Centre Network has responded to these challenges, despite all the other things that they have to deal with. That is partly why it is disheartening to see negative reporting of the scheme rather than the fantastic achievements in such a relatively short space of time. Where is the coverage of that story?Furthermore, I am starting to hear really heart-warming and inspiring stories of individual volunteers – many of whom would not have considered volunteering as an option without this scheme. And, surely, that is what it is all about…Best wishes, Simon

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