Volunteering in the private sector

These volunteers were largely recruited through word of mouth (which as we know always tops the list of the most effective recruitment methods). But when the garden owner approached her local volunteer centre to ask if others could be pointed to opportunities to help out in the garden she was told that was not possible.

Why? Because the garden was privately owned.That got us thinking at the Association of Volunteer Managers. The garden owner accepted that not all establishments would be suitable for volunteers, but she had a history of happy involvement, shouldn’t situations like hers be tackled on a case-by-case basis? That seems logical.

In our discussions in AVM my fellow Director Patrick Daniels pointed out there is little new in the idea of volunteering in a private setting – it happens in football clubs, in educational settings and so on, and is often not tagged as volunteering.

At the same time, this was not a volunteer centre being in any way obstructive, the centre was doing its job – looking to check that the right systems, policies, support was in place for successful volunteering.

Maybe though this is a chance to have a look at some of the wider defining elements and start to work out where stand on volunteering in different sectors. And in the case of AVM, see what the management implications might be.

Perhaps one place to start is to think about the emphasis we put on the organisational setting. We all know that the vast majority of volunteering takes place in the voluntary sector, maybe this influences what we think volunteering is and how we manage volunteers. But what happens when we move outside the settings we are comfortable with?

Anyone who has watched that marvellous series ‘The West Wing’ may remember an episode where Will Bailey, assistant to the Director of Communications, gets a taste of managing volunteers. President Bartlett is going to make a big speech and the White House staff anticipate questions and criticism.

So Will is assigned the task of predicting questions and writing rebuttals – with the help of a staff of interns. Late in the night (no one sleeps in that series), and up against a deadline, Will has lost his team; ‘Where are they?’ he asks.

The reply is simple -they aren’t paid to be here at this time of night! He gets them back into the office, but, my goodness, two have the same name and he can’t remember what the rest are called. His solution is to give out numbered football jerseys, it is much easier just to say the number on the shirt than try to remembers each volunteers name as he tears apart their work.


But they stay and ultimately triumph!! Why would they put themselves through this? Working late into the night, referred to by a number, receiving sharp-tongued criticism. I guess they chose to stay because having ‘White house intern’ on their ‘resume’ is worth it. I am not sure it would make any volunteer management good practice guide though.

But hang on, are they volunteers or interns? What is the difference again? Aren’t they there by their own freewill, not paid, and presumably government is for the benefit of others (no comments on that debate please).

Sometimes working out who is, and who isn’t, a volunteer feels like Darwin dissecting barnacles: classifying and reclassifying, trying to understand what the key features are that make one species and the key differences that determine a different species. In the Will Bailey case, is it the organisational setting that marks the difference between volunteer and intern?

So what happens when we start to look at the private sector? If we find people might want to give time and accept that they are not paid does that make them a volunteer? Or if it is the private sector must it be work experience?Perhaps the defining feature will be finding who benefits (presuming we are happy with the criteria for what a volunteer is).

Volunteering England’s definition of volunteering includes the provision for volunteering in a private setting, but even that must include some organisations and not others.

The private nursing home – probably, the garden mentioned by Adam May, why not? The football club Patrick raised? What about others? In these times when it is hard to get a paid job, might young people want to give time to other sorts of private companies? Not paid – check; of own free will, check; benefit to others – who? The company?

The public that consumes the company products and services? Is it the fact that they are profit making? It can’t be – we allowed the nursing home and maybe the garden. Which are in and which are out? Is the volunteering actually volunteering or internship or work experience? (This is before we have to have a reality check and look at the legal analysis, let us not forget that work in private companies may actually be seen as ‘unpaid work’ for benefit claimants and asylums seekers).

Oh yes, I hear you say, it is obvious that the volunteering sector doesn’t place people with companies. But I have heard of introduction to volunteer schemes (for the Olympics actually) that wants to place volunteers in private companies to learn event management skills; who will look after those volunteers and how are the different values and approaches to be addressed?

On what criteria do we measure the idea of gaining experience or wanting to help someone out versus ideas of exploitation? When do we decide that someone offering skills to a company is distorting markets?

This is not to say none of this should happen, the world changes and maybe a ‘sector specific’ view of volunteering is anachronistic. Darwin spent many years classifying his barnacles, maybe we need to start re-examining our definitions now so we are better placed to face the future

This was originally posted in Volunteering magazine October 2009 issue.

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