Westminster Briefing: Volunteering and the Big Society

This post is the text of a presentation I did, on behalf of AVM, at a recent Westminster Briefing on “Volunteering and the Big Society”. Please add any comments, as we really would like to hear your views on this issue.

“Professor Mathew Hilton and his team at the University of Birmingham have been looking at the Big Society debate and they conclude that “as big government has got bigger, so has big society – they’re not alternatives”. I think they may have a point. Withdrawing national or local government support for communities will not, of itself. create the environment for a bigger and more cohesive society to develop. I hope to show that, in the world of civic engagement at least, the support, knowledge and guidance of suitable people “managing”, for want of a better word, that engagement – is an incredibly powerful enabler in the growth of community and voluntary action.

Government have been spending money on promoting volunteering for many years now but we see little effect in terms of the numbers of people volunteering. Various expensive schemes have come and gone, apparently meeting their targets and then quietly fading away. The problem is that heads are the easiest things to count – and so that is what we do. So we count a person who would have volunteered anyway, or who already does, or who will only do the few hours that the scheme requires – no more than a taster session really. After all the effort and expense – we see the latest Citizenship Survey figures falling to 24%, down 5% on last year, for people engaged in formal volunteering.

Volunteering is a valuable way to learn, and to demonstrate genuine work skills, but it does not exist for that purpose, nor should it. If funding is aimed at placing people in volunteering as a route back to work, third sector organisations may well provide it, but unless the work is real and meaningful, contributing to the work of charities and other NFPs it has no more value than digging a hole and filling it in again. The reason that volunteering is satisfying, valuable, and affirming – is that the contribution of my time, your time, volunteers’ time – achieves something, makes a difference to other people, benefits the environment or campaigns for justice and humanity in some way.

Volunteers are amazing. There is almost nothing that volunteers cannot do, but, with a few exceptions, volunteers are enabled to achieve more, deliver more and contribute more – through the support, guidance and expertise of volunteer managers. Volunteer managers, and, just to clarify, when I use this term I just mean people who manage volunteers, are the enablers that open up possibilities and use their knowledge and experience to guide volunteers. It has been clearly shown that volunteers are both more satisfied and more productive if they have the support of a volunteer manager. We are often flexible, multi-talented people, able to work strategically one minute and then to deal with a difficult personal situation the next. You might think that is boastful, but the reality is that no one else is going to say that for us. The way that volunteer managers, almost always, pass on all the credit for success, to the volunteers concerned, has contributed to our generally low profile.

Despite this, and the fact that we are employed in very small numbers, relative to the organisations we serve, we are often vulnerable in hard economic times, as boards of directors or trustees may not understand the impact that we make. I think we need to make a compelling case for volunteer managers to be recognised and valued appropriately. No organisation would disband its HR or Finance functions when funding is reduced and yet we have seen volunteer managers made redundant and Volunteering Departments drastically cut in recent times even though the charities concerned may be increasingly dependent on the contribution of their volunteers.

Volunteer Centres provide a support service to local volunteer managers and community organisations as well as being amongst the main sources of volunteering brokerage but their funding is piecemeal and still has no national backing despite all the money that has been spent on trying to increase the number of people involved in volunteering. Many Volunteer Centre staff will tell you that it is not volunteers that are in short supply; it is good quality volunteering opportunities that they need. And, in general, good volunteer managers are the source of the best role profiles and the highest quality volunteering experiences, wherever they are advertised. So I suggest that this is one place that support and funding could be used appropriately. Volunteer managers are well used to making money go a long way, so, by funding more volunteer managers, and investing in their development, a lasting and cost effective impression could be made on civil society in the UK. I suggest that both the government, and volunteer involving organisations, of all sectors, try properly resourced volunteer management, as a route to increased volunteer numbers, higher levels of satisfaction and more confident, “paid work ready” people.

Volunteer managers are a collaborative and sharing bunch of people. We set up our own association (AVM) and we help each other via our website and peer to peer, to achieve and deliver more for the volunteers and organisations we serve. We have been active in influencing government, volunteering infrastructure organisations and charities, so that the benefits of the effective management and support of volunteers become more widely known. We have also been willing to contribute to consultations and inquiries, so that the interests of volunteers and volunteer involving organisations are made known. AVM has achieved a lot in our first 3 1/2 years, but we can and must do more. We recognise that, if there is to be a strong and credible volunteer management profession, meeting the needs of civil society, then it is volunteer managers that need to take a lead on developing our own profession. However, we are not the sole owners or guardians of volunteer management and volunteering and to ensure that the volunteer management profession, to use that hackneyed phrase, is ‘fit for purpose’ we also need the wider communities involved in volunteering to support our development.

A major element of the Big Society program is the recruitment and training of 5,000 “Community Organisers” and I suggest that they will need to have volunteer management skills, knowledge and experience in abundance, in order to be effective. They will need to be able to mobilise and motivate, enthuse and guide people in a complex environment. It seems remarkable that these people will not be paid, but expected to finance themselves, as they carry out this important function. Why is it that government think that people involved with the support and enabling of voluntary and community action will be happy to work for nothing? Were this a public service in another field, the idea of them being self supporting, would not even have been considered.

Big Society principles rightly acknowledge that grass roots action is the result of people reacting to need. This is an aspect of localism and self determination: the spirit that takes action rather than moaning that “someone should do something”. Volunteer managers admire and respect this too, but our “added value” is in our experience and our knowledge. We can help volunteers to channel their energy into positive action, rather than dissipating their effort by discovering, from bitter experience, all the hard ways, illegal ways, slow ways and inefficient ways to do things. Coordination, organisation, assessing and managing risk, planning and financing are not always skills that are readily available in any group of people united by the desire to get something done. Volunteer managers fill in the gaps, often by bringing in the right skills or knowing where information and help can be found.

We cannot expect that everything will fall into place if we remove or reduce control and regulation on one hand and resources and support on the other. That would be asking Big Society to grow in a vacuum. I am suggesting that a child as promising, but delicate and underdeveloped, as this, will need encouragement and nurturing in order to thrive and grow. I believe that effective and adequately resourced volunteer management should be a vital component in the Big Society’s development and success.”

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