Local providers protest but BTCV, the national charity in charge of the scheme, says it's a success
Volunteering groups were excited in February when the Government announced an £8m fund to create opportunities for 40,000 unemployed people to do voluntary work that would help them develop the skills they needed to get back to work.
But the scheme, a major part of the Government's £40.5m recession action plan, has proved to be wasteful and inefficient, according to some volunteer managers involved in its implementation.
Under the programme, which is being managed by conservation charity BTCV and delivered by BTCV, CSV, v and Volunteering England, a volunteer broker has been appointed in every job centre district.
The broker is responsible for receiving referrals from the local job centre and matching them with volunteering placements. The broker receives between £130 and £200 from the Department for Work and Pensions for each placement completed.
However, last week, Third Sector reported that BTCV and CSV had offered local volunteer centres as little as £20 per placement to provide the brokerage service for them, a figure the centres rejected as "insulting".
In other areas, volunteer centres that have offered to help with brokerage have been told that being paid to do so is not permitted.
Irene Walker, chief officer at Community Action Wyre Forest, said CSV had told her it was not allowed to pay the volunteer centre to provide the service on its behalf. "They said they were happy for us to do brokerage for them, but they wouldn't give us any money for it, so I refused," she said. "The job centre is still referring people to us, as it always has done, rather than sending them to CSV. So we have more referrals than we used to, but no extra money to handle them."
Karen Chillman, manager of Volunteer Centre Croydon, which is placing volunteers under the scheme, said it had been a burden. The broker does not get paid until the volunteer has completed the placement, she said.
"It seems to encourage us to set up very short-term volunteering 'taster sessions' that last only one day, or to persuade volunteers to quit their placements so we get paid sooner," she said.
"But I think that unemployed people benefit from longer-term placements."
Despite having set up nine successfully completed placements, the centre had not yet received any money from the DWP, she said.
A costly, complicated system under which the other charities take a cut of the DWP money before it reaches the volunteer centre is partly to blame, according to Chillman.
"Before the money reaches us, it goes through four other sets of hands: the DWP, BTCV, v and the volunteer centre hub," she said. "Each of these takes a management fee. I won't believe we'll get the money until I see it."
Chillman says the approach the Government has taken to volunteering is wrong. "There's a focus on volunteering as a way of mending our social problems at the moment, which is great. But we need to be more realistic and make sure it's in the interest of the volunteers and the organisations they volunteer for."
Others on the frontline have put forward suggestions about why a scheme so worthwhile on paper has proved so difficult for them in practice. Some say it is a "numbers game" by a Government placing unrealistic expectations on the sector to prove it is addressing unemployment. Others say confusion, duplication and top-slicing are the result of the Department for Work and Pensions' decision to ask large charities to manage the scheme when small, local groups are better-placed to run it.
A BTCV spokeswoman told Third Sector the brokerage scheme had been "deemed a success" overall, and that the organisations involved were working hard to fix operational issues.
£8m: The amount of money the Government has assigned to the volunteer brokerage scheme
£200: The maximum amount the broker can receive per placement from the Department for Work and Pensions
£20: The amount some volunteer centres have actually been offered for placing volunteers by BTCV and CSV.