Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Branch volunteering and "Big Society"

There's lots of discussion about "Big Society" but not much light about what it may mean in practice; particularly for voluntary organisations which already exist.

Having experienced initiative after initiative over twenty-odd years on the branch committee, what  would I like to see?
  • A single point for organisations to sign up as bodies who can take volunteers. One of the most frustrating things for me has been the waste of my time completing repetitive forms for each new bright idea about encouraging volunteering that emanates from Whitehall. I'd like to see a system (possibly using the existing volunteering add-on to our Charity Commission registration) that let us register as bona fide users of volunteers who are not either axe murderers or operating suicidally dangerous premises. Having done that once we wouldn't need to keep confirming that, yes, we do have a health and safety policy, Employers' Liability Insurance etc. 
  • Recognition for existing volunteers if we (and they) choose. There are large numbers of people who have volunteered for years and years because they have no realistic prospect of getting paid work and they want to put something back into society. In an absolutely ideal world I think there would be an option for people like this to have an alternative type of benefits (maybe called something like volunteering tax credits) that was not a way of forcing or bribing people to "volunteer" but recognising their choice to make a contribution rather than sitting at home watching daytime TV.
  • A centralised and simple way to record the amount of time volunteers have put in (maybe a website where we could submit details). Again it should be up to the volunteer and the organisation whether they want to be included.
  • A single system which could be used to register any volunteer instead of the present alphabet soup of initiatives aimed at getting people into meaningful activity. Ideally this could be used to produce references and some information about what they've done to assist them in future job applications, and would be computerised rather then involving more bits of paper.
  • Sort out the position of volunteers under the age of 18; most urgently those who are under 16. At the moment if a volunteer under the age of 15 wants to work in a charity shop, the shop has to apply for special permission from the local authority, and must do this for each volunteer. It would make youth volunteering much more of a practical proposition if each place where young people were to volunteer had just one set of registration requirements and only had to do one generic risk assessment of the venue's suitability for young people, rather than an individual assessment for each young person. It would also help if there was some sensible reassessment of the need for background checks of adults who will be working alongside young volunteers.
At present I strongly suspect that some young people are drawn into risky forms of activism simply because more responsible organisations dare not involve young people because of the difficulty of staying within the law.
  • An educational component in all volunteering activity, to be developed by the organisation with the aim that the volunteer would learn something meaningful about the functioning, purpose etc. of that organisation, rather than simply being used as an extra pair of unskilled hands.
  • A more sensible attitude to using volunteers for tasks that are sometimes done by paid staff, rather than the mantra that "job substitution" is to be avoided at all costs. Of course it would be unacceptable (and a breach of employment law) to sack paid staff and replace them with unpaid volunteers. Some roles (such as the inspectorate in our case) would be quite unsuitable for volunteers. But there is nothing magical about being paid and it is equally unacceptable to waste charity funds through a bigoted attitude that volunteers must always be subject to a paid manager and not expected to take responsibility. Voluntary organisations are not job creation schemes and, in the long run, this kind of attitude helps no-one because properly-used volunteers release funds that can be used to employ paid professionals for the tasks that genuinely can't be done by anyone else.
  • A sane attitude to using volunteers to save money — of course this is a good thing (provided it can be done without detriment to services). There is nothing to be ashamed of in using volunteers to stack shelves if it means another dog or cat can have a fracture repair done by qualified veterinary staff.
(Cross-posted, with a few edits, from our i-volunteer entry).

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