How to solve a problem like volunteering?

This week I began a guest post over at BeGoodBeSocial like this:

Being a charity is tough right now. If the effects of stautory cuts weren’t enough, we’re criticised by some quarters for being over-reliant on a Government spoon in the first place; you deserve it, you’re a hidden tax, you’re a pawn and a fraud they say. We sometimes hear that charity workers shouldn’t take a decent salary home, and that volunteers should (and, erm, can) perform [some of] the specialist roles that non-profits encompass (you know, the ones that prop up public services).

I promise that blog gets more optimistic! But I wrote these lines a few hours after hearing that Timebank, a large UK charitable organisation that has recruited around 300,000 volunteers over the last decade – and a strategic partner of the Office for Civil Society (OCS) – is to have its statutory funding revoked.

Pic: Flickr user, kawwsu29

When Timebank put up an uncharacteristically strongly-worded blog post displaying confusion at the income cut, the comments section was predictably polarised. While there was outrage and sympathy, there were also naysayers who questioned the wisdom of relying on major government funding as lifeblood. This varied from the ‘diversifying income is key’ camp (something Jon Duschinsky and I were casually debating over lunch a few weeks back), to the ‘appalled tax payer’ camp who don’t believe government should be subsidising charities to deliver parts of public services (the bits it can’t reach via the state?). To ensure I don’t belittle the latter argument, there is a rationally argued position about charities and ‘pressure-groups’ that appear to blur the line between arm of state and independent body by being too dependent on statutory funding; see the provocatively titled website Fake Charities.

I feel for Timebank. They’ve been pretty open when replying to comments that they have been (over?)relying on a fair amount of government cash – and were working to diversify their income. But at the same time they probably felt, especially in the midst of David Cameron’s unwavering call for a volunteer-driven Big Society, that they were safe from the worst of the cuts. For Timebank it wasn’t only business as usual post-May 2010, but it must have felt like Christmas had come – because here was a Government preaching about placing volunteers at the heart of its strategy and social priorities. Funding and ideology and strategic delivery – a holy trinity – with Government, charity, and business all building and mending communities through training volunteers in all kinds of localised roles.

From a communications perspective, I wonder whether this will put a chink in the armour of the Big Society narrative. For PR sake, I wonder whether the OSC could have kept Timebank on as a strategic partner, and mined its success for case studies of how a Big Society could work. But this raises two thorny issues; Timebank might be accused of being seduced by the promise of continuity primarily through statutory funding (would it appear on the pages of Fake Charities?), and the Tory-led coalition would look like it was playing favourites and deviating from its distaste for ‘Big Charity’; favouring grassroots volunteering.

There is clearly some ideology at play here – because a decision has been made to deny large organisations the ‘monopoly’ on volunteerism. It’s a message; we won’t pay to train the trainers, volunteerism will be organic and local, large organisations must devolve or at least won’t be able to claim much from tax payers via the government’s coat tails thank you very much. The ball is back in charities’ courts – we have to convince tax payers to invest in charities on a case by case, impact-demonstrable basis. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. But it means we have to have to get tough, and get real. Why are we here – what value are we adding – are we duplicating work? As the state retreats, are we waving or drowning? And how do we solve a problem like volunteering?

7 thoughts on “How to solve a problem like volunteering?

  1. I do feel for the people at TimeBank, really, but I’m not convinced that by cutting their funding the OCS will be shooting itself in the foot in terms of the big society agenda. TimeBank were one of many agencies that did some great work in relation to volunteering but I would not say they were any more an expert or beacon of excellence in this area than a lot of other agencies who never had the benefit of national government funding. The problem with volunteering, if there is one, is that it means different things to different people – instead of trying to reinvent the word or box organisations into different categories we should celebrate this diversity and open up more opportunities to agencies to get funded by results.

    1. The trouble is that volunteering is a complex business that takes time and skills to get good results, and it often requires a skilled and paid person to manage the process.
      In a previous job, I managed volunteers who wanted to talk to the media about their experiences. I found that people weren’t always honest with themselves about why they were doing it. Sometimes, I had to gently tell people who wanted their moment of glory that it came with consequences – ie telling the world about personal details of their life – that they weren’t prepared to accept.
      With a paid worker, it’s very clear why you are hired,and if you don’t do what you are paid to do, you could get sacked (a clear and hopefully fair transaction). With a volunteer, it’s not so transparent and as anyone who has been involved with a group of volunteers will know, you can get people whose psychological need to help is not always matched by their skill set.
      In other words, people can be hell bent on ‘helping’ but at best get frustrated that they can’t, and at worst make a nuisance of themselves because they are not suited to the work that needs doing.
      Good charities know how to use volunteers effectively. We need organisations like Timebank who have the expertise to match people up. It’s all very well saying charities shouldn’t rely on state handouts, but when the state relies on them to deliver things it can’t (Heineken funding, you could say), what do people expect?

  2. Thanks both for your comments and thoughts.

    @Jamie, I should of course have mentioned that there are many agencies busy connecting volunteers and working hard locally having never been on the radar of Government funding – your own http://www.i-volunteer.org.uk/ is a fantastic hub for volunteerism. In terms of getting funding by results, I guess my suspicion is if you’re already doing a great job – you’re even less likely to get statutory grants! A self-sufficient org is living the BS dream.

    I’m quite interested in what The Transformation Trust does, and how it delivers small localised projects with young people through corporate support and volunteering (see: http://bit.ly/hTc4hX), but even they had a little Government help (when it suited Gov) when communicating their Big Society credentials: http://bit.ly/foQawH.

    @Liz, Good points about the specific training and support for those managing volunteers. Just like local government, the WI, Rotaries and Neighbourhood Watch – sometimes the eager beavers that volunteer need to be erm ‘managed’ to get the best of their skills and well-meant enthusiasm… 😉

  3. Hi Rob – interesting post.

    I think what is missing in the debate (whether we are talking about volunteer-facing organisations, social enterprise-facing organisations, or ones focusing on some other subset of civil society) is how these decisions get made.

    I have no idea, to be honest, whether I should sign up to a petition to protect Time Bank or Volunteering England. Or one of the other volunteering organisations. But it should be able to be judged by some comparative metrics (or they could at least be used to inform the decisions). When politicians (and sector experts) have told us for the last few years, in capitals, that THE SECTOR NEEDS TO MEASURE ITS IMPACT BETTER (and communicate it), the last few months have rather prompted the question: well, why should we? Because, at least where government is concerned, (comparative) evidence and track record are seemingly not taken into account at all; despite what you say about the need for ‘impact-demonstrable’ work above.

    Perhaps measurement will only be of true value if you are seeking to gain investment (social impact bond) or a contract that is payment-by-results (and therefore have to measure them…). Whereas proving you make a difference (and improving what you do) should be at heart of every organisation’s work, wherever it’s funding comes from.

    It’s not evidence-based policy making; it’s not even policy-based evidence making (!); it’s short-termist, fairly arbitrary cut-making which, even if we think them necessary, seems to be based on little logic, strategy or reason.

    [and a P.S.: I’ve no doubt that the colour of the party in government makes little difference on this issue…]

    1. Thanks Nick, Good point re decision making – what’s the criteria exactly?

      Re impact – Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, recently addressed an NCVO campaigns conference with the mantra of ‘demonstrable impact’ – and the inference was it would lead to MPs taking charities more seriously, and hold greater sway with influencing members of key committees and All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs). I couldn’t say there was a veiled threat / promise that demonstrable impact equates a likelier chance of funding, but would say it’s generally good practice. Bercow seemed to be suggesting that not enough charities are proving their mettle when it comes to the ‘why us’ and ‘why our issue’ part of lobbying. Which is worrying.

      And, as a potential donor, if a charity cannot demonstrate to me how my funds could make a difference (and some patently can’t – mentioning no names), then we’re in danger of resting on our laurels or silo-ing supporters.

      With you on the last point – I think the current cut-making decisions are at best arbitrary (but at worst a wrong-footed attempt to “encourage” more grassroots organic volunteerism). Stemming the larger players in volunteer-training just strikes me as odd…

    2. Interesting point Nick. I actually ran the volunteering and social action policy brief in the forerunner to the Office for Civil Society when it was the Active Communities Directorate and I have some sympathy with what you’re saying; however there is normally a clear policy that directs spending decisions, believe it or not, and they are nearly always informed by how effective organisations are. However I think the last government was more of the opinion that grant aid was just as important as payment by results as it was thought that funding an agency strategically – and thereby letting them just get on and do what they are best at – had strong merits. This government thinks otherwise. I also get the impression that pulling this particular fund does not mean that there will be no funding in future, quite the contrary, what it means is that future funding will be for specific pieces of work that support the government’s big society ideal, rather than just contributing generally to an organisation’s work. This is probably a good thing as it means that organisation’s can be more flexible and independent, although for some it does mean pain in the shorter term.

      Rob we made a conscious decision that i-volunteer would not be reliant on or beholdent to government and whereas this means it’s taken us longer to get where we want to be (and we’re still very much on the journey), at least we are independent and can set our own agenda and provide a genuinely free space for the sector to do it’s thang! And I aim to keep it that way….

      TimeBank are an incredibly creative agency with an impressive track record of innovation. But I’m actually surprised at their public response to their funding cut and I don’t think it’s doing them any favours. A few years back when they had their government grant cut by over half they bounced back with seemingly little difficulty as their last CEO was really successful at securing alternative funds – I’ve no doubt they will be able to do the same this time round…

  4. A great post highlighting a number of problems (or should I say challenges) faced by those that support volunteers and volunteering in the current climate.

    There are three very good points coming out of the comments

    The need to open up more opportunities to a diverse range of organizations and groups to get funded by results

    Support is required to enable volunteers to volunter effectively

    We need to measure and demonstrate impact effectively

    Part of the Big Society agenda is clearly to get more grassroots organizations to deliver amongst other things, volunteering. This is being positioned as a way of driving down costs and increasing efficiencies and impact. What remains to be seen is whether these groups have the time and resources to effectively bid for the funds they need as well as measure imapct and support volunteers whilst making the hoped for efficiencies. If not then (as far as I can tell) it is down to private companies who will then need to step in to assist these organizations to do just that (or they become social enterprises themselves). This needs to be done whilst maintaining the integrity of these groups, otherwise we will be replacing large(ish) part-statutory funded charities with large private companies who’s bottom line and accountability is altogether different.

    There are concerns that the role of support and infrastructure organizations that broaden reach, increase access and engagement, as well as establish best practice, build capacity and reduce barriers has not been understood. If this has been misjudged then greater cost may be incurred in re-inventing these mechanisms.

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