The conflict between want and need

One of the emerging themes over the last year has been the growing demand for volunteering opportunities but the declining demand for volunteers from organisations. Within this debate, though, there seems to be an implicit criticism of organisations that we are not doing enough to accommodate volunteers.

Volunteering is a good thing. We all know this. And the Government has spent plenty of money on encouraging more people to volunteer. However policy has always focussed on getting more people to volunteer and not stopped to think about what the need for volunteers is.

I work for an organisation that is reliant on volunteers. Volunteering is part of our ethos. However, we are not ‘about’ volunteering, we are ‘about’ the health and well-being of older people. Volunteering does of course play a crucial role in the health and well-being of older volunteers but we do not exist to provide volunteering opportunities per se.

In fact, I would go further. If there was a more effective way to support and improve the health and well-being of older people than through volunteering then we would go down that route. And as we are partly funded by public money, speaking as a tax-payer that is only right and proper.

Of course, many orgs could do more to involve volunteers (and there’s plenty of info on what that is) but the debate has never really moved on to look at when does the cost of involving volunteers outweigh the benefits.

Towards the end of last year I met with some Age Concerns to discuss the DWP scheme and what they needed. What came through echoed the current climate. Enquiries were up, but the opportunities just weren’t there either through a lack of capacity to manage any more volunteers or they just didn’t need any more (other than the usual volunteer turnover).

Of course not all of this is new. IVR’s ‘Management Matters’ published in April 2008 identified that there was a growing lack of capacity within vol orgs to involve more volunteers.

We all know how disastrous it can be to run a hugely successful recruitment campaign but not have the procedures in place to then place them in appropriate opportunities. The fear is that this is being replicated on a national scale.

A couple of interesting things that have come out recently:

– Volunteering England has published its Outline report for the Recession Summit on volunteering and the recession, which is well worth a read

– Third Sector today has reported the DWP brokerage plan will miss its targets

One further point is the role of informal volunteering. Susan Ellis’s January Hot Topic is an excellent read and makes a very thoughtful point: ‘The number of volunteer opportunities is actually limitless. While some organizations may reach a point of not accepting new volunteers, there is nothing stopping individuals from going elsewhere, acting independently, or even starting a new organization’

One of our problems, I think, is that we tend to separate out formal and informal volunteering too much, without recognising the natural convergence that exists between the two.

What needs to happen then within the policy debate?

  1. Support Vol Organisations and Vol Managers to develop their skills so that they can involve volunteers better and develop the opportunities. This is of course partly happening through the Volunteer Management Fund but there needs to be more emphasis on influencing leaders to support and invest in volunteering.
  2. Recognise that recruitment must go hand-in-hand with need. Recognise that most organisations do not exist to provide volunteering opportunities, we exist to support our service-users.
  3. Link the formal and informal volunteering sectors more effectively. Whilst the opportunities within the formal volunteering sector may not always be there, most communities are in dire need of informal help and support as we saw during the ‘big freeze’. I know a lot of people who were snowed in and said they would have been happy to help out but didn’t know how. They weren’t interested in formally signing up to anything but just wanted to grab a spade, for example.


One thought on “The conflict between want and need

  1. Hi there John – I think you put your finger on an issue that essentially represents a crisis in the UK volunteering infrastructure. I think over the last few years or so, that new technology has exposed the structural weakness that exists in the way formal volunteering opportunities are offered and provided.On the one hand, the possibilities opened up by the web for smaller more informal groups to organise around issues that offer ways to engage and participate are on the increase. On the other, Government and many other big influential funders have continued to view the purpose of volunteering in increasingly reductionist terms (e.g. numbers of volunteers recruited as the key metric, etc). I think we in voluntary sector orgs and infrastructure need to get more creative in how we reach out to include the vast range of giving activities from both formal and informal voluntary sector and civil society.Second, I think volunteering professionals and funders need to continue to work together to develop new forms of measuring the impact of volunteering, fit for purpose as volunteering evolves and changes.I’ve been blogging on some of these issues, and will be presenting findings at the Volunteering Counts conference in March. Be great to know what you or any other AVM readers think.

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