Volunteer led organisations

In the final part of our “Embedding a Volunteer Culture” blog series, Lynn explores what it means for an organisation to be ‘volunteer led’. 

Is being ‘volunteer led’ essential to a pro volunteering culture? What do we mean by ‘volunteer led’?

Most charities are quite literally volunteer led, since responsibility lies with the Board of Trustees, which is usually unpaid.

But does it mean something more, such as being wholly volunteer run, or acknowledging the low staff/high volunteer ratio, or volunteers being involved in setting vision, strategy, policy and how volunteers are engaged – perhaps as representatives of the charity’s beneficiary group or customer base?

Given the importance of a ‘one team’ approach to a pro volunteering culture, how do staff feel about being part of an organisation that is ‘volunteer’ led? Moreover, how do volunteers feel about that? In the same way that it might not be useful to talk about volunteer ‘programmes’, it marks out volunteers as being different/separate. Lots of grass root community activity is volunteer led and can be a good thing, but in an organisation that employs both paid and unpaid staff, should we be talking about it being volunteer led?

Several volunteers I have worked with have expressed anxiety at the prominence of volunteers in their organisations, concerned that staff will feel disempowered. This is sometimes married with feelings that volunteers shouldn’t have a say about strategic issues – that being outside of their proper domain and, very often, their interest. And staff can feel left out when there is a focus on volunteering development – ‘what about us?’.

I’ve worked in organisations where induction, reward and recognition is better for volunteers than it is for staff. Volunteers can also be treated differently to staff, manifested in double standards – inappropriate volunteer behaviour is not dealt with for fear of upsetting a much needed team – risking the credibility of staff. We do need to make volunteers feel valued – Volunteers’ Week is a great initiative as is giving thanks/feedback regularly – but if volunteers genuinely get value from their involvement and are thanked for that, is there also a need to mark them out as particularly special (more special than staff) because they give their time for free?

Still, given that most charities have more unpaid than paid staff, it of course makes sense that volunteers have a strong voice, or at least the opportunity should be there for those who want it. Having Trustees who understand and champion volunteering is also vital – don’t assume that Trustees, as volunteers themselves, will understand volunteering. In terms of voice, there is often a gap between that senior body of volunteers and those in other roles – very often few opportunities to drive/contribute strategically, or playing key roles.

Senior managers and other staff often pay lip service to volunteering, not understanding it and its power. This ignorance can lead to suspicion of volunteer motivations (often related to job security), and misconceptions around a lack of professionalism and reliability can lead to a lack of trust and reluctance to relinquish control.

Volunteering has never had such a high profile, but some organisations still state that volunteers can’t do the same jobs as paid workers, though in practise this is rarely the case. It is difficult to see how  gardeners, researchers and retail volunteers aren’t doing the same job as their paid counterparts.

Perhaps it’s something to do with paid staff taking overall responsibility for the organisation and quality of the work, but this attitude, coupled with a lack of understanding of why people volunteer, also leads to missed opportunities to ask volunteers to do things that some consider inappropriate in other ways. As Canal & River Trust colleagues will testify, whilst engineers and surveyors are keen to share their skills and time, some of us actually do just want to pick up litter or scrub graffiti off bridges.

People will still volunteer, even if the volunteering culture isn’t great, because they are passionate and committed. But in these changing times of increased competition for people’s free time that probably won’t last for long.

This guest blog is by Lynn Blackadder, a coach and consultant with 22 years’ experience of helping organisations involve volunteers. Lynn blogs in a personal capacity.
lynn@lynnblackadder.com , @lynnblackadder )


What’s Wrong With Incentives Anyway?

I thought you might be interested in reading the transcript of the short speech I gave in the debate on incentives at VE’s AGM this week:

Thank you for inviting me to join the debate today. When I first heard of RockCorps initiative of offering young people concert tickets to encourage them to do 4 hours of volunteering I initially found myself doing a very bad impression of Victor Meldrew and being somewhat annoyed. Taking a backward step I started to explore why this was.  If found that there were a number of different issues, but the only that really stood out for me was how will offering incentives to volunteer impact on the integrity of volunteering?

I think everyone’s take on this is different and given that volunteers are involved in many different areas and in many different ways, I don’t think there is an easy answer. The Compact Code of Good Practice on Volunteering describes volunteering as “an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups”.

The Compact Oxford Dictionary describes to volunteer as to “freely offer to do something”(2).  For me, the definition which comes closest to my understanding what volunteering is I came across in an article posted on the UKVPMs online forum last week. It describes volunteerism as the willingness of people to work on behalf of others without being motivated by financial or material gain.

I think it important to also recognize that people do volunteer for reasons other than the greater good, motivated for reasons of self-development, improving self-worth or gaining skills and experience in order to gain employment for example. I think these are perfectly valid reasons for volunteering as I believe that through self improvement we do something, perhaps indirectly, that benefits society.

I think part of my unease around offering incentives for volunteering is that it seems somewhat incongruous with notion of volunteering being unpaid or without financial or material gain. Can it truly be stated that you are offering your time for free if you are given a concert ticket for 4 hours of volunteering? But then, one person’s incentive is another person’s recognition award. Rockcorps consider the concert as a celebration of their volunteers achievement.

In this month’s Volunteering England’s online magazine there is an article on volunteering with the RSPB. The article makes mention that every volunteer who give 50 hours or more of their time in a year are given a Volunteer Card entitling them to 20% discount on RSPB goods in recognition of their contribution. So what is the difference between a concert ticket and a discount card? What makes one an incentive and another a recognition award? When does incentive become recognition?  Is it simply a case of an agreed commitment of time? Do we draw a line in the sand at 10 hours, 20 hours, 50 hours?

I don’t think it is as simple as that. I personally feel that 4 hours of volunteering for a concert ticket, whether you consider it an incentive, celebration or recognition, somewhat devalues the value of recognition and would feel more comfortable it was in recognition of say 20 hours. I have no logic to base this on. It’s just something that I feel is about right. It doesn’t mean I’m right though or invalidates what Rockcorps are doing.

I understand the reasons behind Rockcorps incentives and the appeal of them. I think it would be disingenuous, cynical and wrong of me at state that the many thousands of young people who have volunteered through Rockcorps have volunteered simply for a concert ticket. My hope also is and I have no evidence to doubt, that the 35% who Rockcorps have re-volunteered within a year have done so for the greater good.

I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong in offering incentives to volunteer, however, I think we as a sector need to look very carefully at how incentives might impact on the integrity of volunteering. Do we run the risk of disenfranchising the vast majority of people who volunteer freely, without financial or material gain?

Do we also run the risk of creating a culture where people’s primary reason for volunteering is the incentive itself rather than doing something to benefit the environment, society or for self-development?

I can’t help but feel hollow inside if the answer to those two questions were yes. Thank you.


Post by Sean Cobley

Letter to 3rd Sector regarding OrangeCorps

I wanted to share with you a letter I sent to Third Sector in response to the interview in last Weds (20th Aug) issue in case it doesn’t get published. I’d welcome your thoughts!:


I read with interest your interview with Stephen Green, Chief Executive of RockCorps.

While thinking the RockCorps concept is an interesting and innovative idea in introducing young people to volunteering I am left feeling a little troubled about incentivising volunteering in this way. If young people are more willing to give than ever as Mr Greene states, why then to they need to be offered concert tickets to volunteer? Volunteering shouldn’t be about personal material gain.

It would be interesting to find out how many of the 35% who went on to volunteer elsewhere did so without being offered something material in return. While I understand that the idea is to introduce young people to volunteering, can 4 hours really give them a proper idea of what it is really like to be an active citizen?

Offering concert tickets in this way would also seem to be a payment in kind and of sufficient value to be a “consideration”. Is this not an overt contract as the work is in exchange for the tickets which is clearly expressed and acknowledged by RockCorps? Legislation and good practice is different in the US and wonder if this model needs adapting for the UK.

Kind regards,

Sean Cobley
Director, AVM