Philip Goodwin: From Timbuktu to chief of VSO

Goodwin has become chief executive of VSO at a time of great change in the profile of its volunteers. He spoke to Stephen Cook

Philip Goodwin
Philip Goodwin

When Philip Goodwin was a volunteer in Timbuktu for nine months in 1998, working on desertification with a local voluntary organisation called Ardil, he found it extremely tough. "I did get off the plane and think, crikey, maybe I should get back on it, because I suddenly saw the context and the personal challenge I faced.

"I was very much on my own and it took quite a lot of resilience. I've heard since that Ardil has built capacity and survived, and it would not have happened without a volunteering intervention. But it was very tough - you wondered why you were doing it and whether it was working. Timbuktu is, as you expect, in the middle of nowhere."

He mentions this experience in the west African country of Mali to illustrate why taking the top job at VSO last year felt like coming home or fulfilling a dream. "Having been a volunteer, you understand what the experience is like and you can connect with it," he says. "There's an almost visceral connection, and a passion as well, because I know the difference it can make."

But he also emphasises how thinking and practice in volunteering organisations have moved on in the interim, addressing some of the things he found to be a challenge. Although they might work as individuals from day to day, VSO volunteers are nowadays part of teams and much larger programmes where the collective impact is more visible.

All the same, the personal and organisational challenges have not gone away.

"Our volunteers often do complex jobs in difficult environments," he says. "Getting the timing and the skills right, and managing them in difficult circumstances, is a tough ask. Most of the places we work in are fragile in some way - take Sierra Leone, for example."

The modern VSO is almost unrecognisable from the organisation founded in 1958 by Alec Dickson, a journalist who turned to visionary social projects and also founded Community Service Volunteers in 1962. VSO's early volunteers were principally school leavers, but within 10 years it was mainly sending abroad volunteer professionals with high skill levels.

That model has evolved and expanded. As well as the professionals, who usually go for about two years in the middle or at the ends of their careers, there has been a growing proportion of corporate volunteers, also highly skilled, but who go for shorter periods.

Since 2012, young volunteers have also become a bigger part of the mix again because of the establishment of the International Citizen Service - the overseas counterpart of the National Citizen Service - which VSO manages on behalf of the UK government (see International Citizen Service).

For the two-year placements and ICS opportunities, VSO casts the net widely and expects to get about four applications per post. "It's always a challenge because we're very demanding and have to manage people's expectations," says Goodwin. "There are a lot of people out there who would like to do something positive and contribute, and we are very robust in thinking it through.

"We might say 'of course you have experience in schools, but can we apply that to the demand we have?' In some cases we will say it's not a good fit, and in others people realise themselves that it's not what they want to do right now or it's not for them.

"A lot of people are mid-career and want something to re-energise themselves - for example, NHS doctors, nurses, paediatricians and midwives enjoy the challenge of a different context and a new perspective on their work in the UK. Some people are retired but not retired, in their 60s and 70s - age is no barrier. They all do amazing work, challenging themselves professionally. It's not a comfort zone at all."

Another big shift has been recruiting volunteers from countries other than the UK. Of the 987 international volunteers in 2014 - the professionals who go for two years - only a third were from the UK. Another third were from other developed countries, and the rest from developing nations. "So a team might have a Kenyan working alongside a Filipino, and Dutch person working alongside someone from the UK, and then a volunteer from the country concerned," says Goodwin. "It's very different from 15 years ago, when it was largely UK volunteers and if you had other nationalities they were usually European or north American."

This change has partly come about because of the recognition that some developing countries such as the Phillippines can offer new perspectives on development, and partly because of the way the funding of VSO has changed. In the past the bulk of the money came from the UK government, but an increasing proportion now comes from other governments, such as those of Norway or Ireland.

But behind all these changes lies perhaps the biggest change of all, which concerns the essential purpose of VSO. "We are not a volunteer-sending agency," says Goodwin. "We are an international development agency that uses the power of volunteers. That's an important distinction. Some people ask about whether the number of volunteers is going down or up - however, we measure our performance not by the numbers, but by the development impact they can deliver."

In fact, the number of international volunteers on the ground - those doing two-year stints - remains steady at about 1,000 a year, he says: "The number of volunteers is not growing exponentially, yet we can deliver increasing development impact, and our evidence base for that is getting stronger."

One research programme at the University of Brighton, for example, is looking at the long-term effects of a VSO programme in Sri Lanka that closed two years ago. Goodwin says the results are positive, showing that volunteers were a key part of making the work sustainable.

The emphasis on impact and sustaintability has come about partly because of pressure from the UK government that began about five years ago - it still provides the bulk of VSO's funding. "I think that's entirely right and proper," says Goodwin. "If taxpayers' money is going into the organisation, we should be called to account, and we are able to demonstrate where the impact is."

All the same, the government has cut VSO's strategic grant - its core funding - from 54 per cent to 29 per cent of its income between 2010 and 2015. "We had a constructive conversation about that," says Goodwin. "It's important for us as a civil society organisation to maintain our independence, and we shouldn't be too reliant on any single funder.

"The government has made demands on us to demonstrate innovation - the strategic grant is unrestricted but based around very clear targets we're supposed to deliver. That has changed a lot from 10 years ago, but those demands are reasonable, to my mind, and it's right and proper for us to respond.

"The government has always seen the value of VSO - but times have changed, so they're saying 'we believe in you and see you as a strategic partners in delivering our goals, but the nature of the relationship has to change'. So they still invest in the organisation and I consider the strategic grant as an investment in change."

Fundraising, pay and reputation at 'a trusted brand'

Individual donors have not provided a large part of VSO's income in the past. But since its strategic grant from the government began to shrink six years ago, it has increased individual giving to £6m out of its total of £77m last year, when controversies over fundraising prompted a review of the situation.

"We have watched that debate very carefully," says Goodwin. "We have looked at ourselves and said we need to be very robust and make sure that we are not just compliant with new standards but go further than that.

"VSO is a trusted brand and we don't want to undermine that in any way. We haven't been involved in the more aggressive fundraising approaches - we've always tried to make sure our supporters are a group of people we stay close to and steward well."

VSO does, however, do doorstep fundraising, generally considered to be one of the least popular methods. "It is our main channel for donor recruitment," says a spokeswoman. "It allows us to convey the uniqueness of our model in one-to-one conversations with potential supporters."

VSO does not sell or swap donor data and its practice of buying high-value cold lists is being reviewed because of falling return on investment.

Goodwin says the charity has sought to build donations from its core supporters, who he says are very vocal. "If anything comes up that they don't approve of, they write to me. When I joined, people wrote and said 'congratulations - I hope you're going to look after our VSO'.

"They have a strong sense of ownership and connection with the VSO family or team. We have passionate returned volunteers and ex-employees. There is a LinkedIn group of 80,000 alumni.

"That's a pool of people to die for, and we don't seek to exploit them in any way. Some people might think we're mugs not to, but we have strong sense of stewardship. That has served us well, but we can never be complacent."

Senior pay has been another reason for criticism of charities. Goodwin openly discusses his £115k salary, which is some £30,000 less than his predecessor, Marg Mayne, following market testing and assessment by trustees.

"When I was offered the job, I considered it a privilege and an honour, and I wasn't going to negotiate the salary," he says. "I'm not motivated by money.

"I used to work for the British Council, where I was paid more than I am now. I took a 50 per cent pay cut and lost a civil service pension to work at Tree Aid before I came to VSO. People said 'are you crazy?' But I'm better off than most people in the country, and we are trying to do good things here.

"There has been an assumption that charities are run by amateurs, basically, but I'm very clear that this is a professional organisation run by professional people. So the question is, do you get value for money? That's for my board to decide."

What about "two clicks to clarity", recommended by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, allowing people to find senior salaries within two clicks of a charity home page? Goodwin's view is that people can work out how much a chief executive is paid by searching through the accounts - reached in two clicks - which say anonymously in bands of £10k how many people earn above £60k.

The International Citizen Service

The International Citizen Service was an election promise in the 2010 Conservative manifesto that has enjoyed cross-party support. It has so far sent 7,500 people between 18 and 25 on volunteer placements, and plans to send 10,000 more in the next three years.

VSO leads the consortium that runs ICS and received £26m from the government in the year 2014/15, of which £18m was passed on to partner organisations. "It was absolutely ground-breaking," says Goodwin. "The government was thinking very innovatively about this, and we were keen that it would deliver impact.

"It absolutely isn't a gap year: there must be development outcomes. It is structured and it must involve counterparts in the countries concerned, so there are opportunities for them too. It's not just young UK people doing stuff and coming back.

"A lot of people said it couldn't be done at scale, but it's an amazing achievement and I get a lot of requests for information about it from other countries, including France, Ireland and the Peace Corps in the US."

Goodwin says a key part of the ICS is inclusion - a minimum of 10 per cent of plans are for those who are not the more privileged pre and post-university people who already have opportunities, so there are people without standard qualifications and who have disabilities, such as hearing difficulties.

"If you meet them, it's amazing how it has developed them, both individually and collectively, fostering a positive social impulse. It recognises the power of young people to create positive development impact."

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