Got a problem? Call a volunteer

It's being presented as a cure-all, but is too much expected of volunteering? Indira Das-Gupta asks the experts.

Is life a beach for volunteers?
Is life a beach for volunteers?

Volunteering has undergone a major image transformation in recent years. It's no longer seen as the preserve of ladies of a certain age with a fondness for tweed, and people from all walks of life are getting in on the act.

But volunteering isn't popular only with charities and volunteers. It has also attracted interest from public sector managers, corporate HR directors and politicians of all persuasions. Volunteering, it's claimed, can help cure medical complaints, build staff morale in the workplace, support schoolteachers and boost the effectiveness of the NHS.

This wider profile has been broadly welcomed by the sector, but could it be that volunteering is becoming a victim of its own success?

Debbie Usiskin, one of the founders and a director of new support group the Association of Volunteer Managers, certainly thinks so. Last week, she warned against offering volunteering "as a panacea for society's ills".

"Sometimes, the circumstances in which volunteering is suggested as a solution are almost laughable," she says. "A doctor called me because he had a patient who had suffered a breakdown over a bereavement. He suggested getting her to volunteer in a care home for the elderly, where, because of their age, residents die."

But this view is not shared by all. Claire Helman, director of Capital Volunteering, which is backed by volunteering charity CSV and supports people who are isolated by mental ill-health, says everyone should have the right to volunteer if they want to.

"Our volunteers receive other support - it's not a substitute for anything," she says. "Of course it's not the answer to everything, and it would be ridiculous to say otherwise. You can never say it will improve everyone's lives, but we have evidence that shows it has changed many people's lives for the better."

Russell Brooks of v20, the advisory board for youth volunteering charity v, agrees. "It's not about saying that people should or shouldn't do it," he says. "But if people want to do it, they should."

Offering volunteering opportunities to people with high support needs can benefit the charity as well as the individual, adds Kate Bowgett, volunteer development manager at homelessness charity Off the Streets and Into Work. Managing such volunteers should not be seen as a chore or a drain on resources, she argues.

"Sometimes, lack of resources is just an excuse, and the organisation concerned doesn't want to make the leap and take on someone with a disability, for example, or someone for whom English is not their first language," she says. "That's a huge shame for the organisation and its beneficiaries as well as volunteers, who can still have a lot to offer."

As well as being touted as a cure-all for individuals facing challenges in their lives, volunteering is also increasingly seen as a way of propping up public services, according to Usiskin.

"Getting volunteers into public services seems to be about cutting costs, but it's not a free option," she says. "Volunteering should be encouraged because it has so many benefits - but that doesn't happen by magic. In order to be successful, you need to invest time and money."

Chris Reed, chief executive of Westminster Volunteer Centre and a trustee of Volunteering England, agrees that the infrastructure of volunteering has been under-funded for too long. "Volunteer managers are too often not given the training and support they need," he says.

Chris Dobson, head of people support at WRVS, part of the Time for Health coalition, which aims to get more volunteers into the NHS, insists getting volunteers involved in public services is not simply a cost-cutting exercise. "It's not about trying to fill the gaps," she says. "Volunteering is not a sticking plaster. Volunteers can bring added value. For example, a volunteer can spend more time than a healthcare professional could with a patient who doesn't get many visitors."

The Commission on the Future of Volunteering, an independent body established by the England Volunteering Development Council to develop a long-term vision for volunteering, is collecting evidence on this and other issues from volunteer managers, volunteers and policy makers.

A spokeswoman said it would be inappropriate to comment before the commission releases its report in October. The findings, however, already appear to confirm that there is a growing band of beleaguered volunteer managers.

Usiskin hopes the commission will recommend more joined-up thinking on the issue.

"I'd like to see a proper career structure for volunteer managers and salaries that reflect their responsibility," she says.

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