Rob Jackson: Volunteering should not be a two-tier experience

Those doing a governance role should be no more cared for and remunerated any better than volunteers on the ground doing the hard graft who can be poorly organised, supported and looked after, writes our columnist

Two news stories about volunteering caught my eye last month.
The first was from New Philanthropy Capital who reignited the debate about whether charities should be allowed to pay their trustees in the report, "It Starts From The Top".

NPC stated that: "The Charity Commission should amend guidance on paying trustees and on allowing senior staff to sit on boards, to avoid disincentivising charities from exploring this where they have a reasonable case. This will be especially important to attracting more diverse board membership."

Andrew Purkis responded to the report brilliantly when he wrote that "making it easier to pay trustees would have had no impact on the recent controversies that are referenced at the start and end of the report. The rationale used is that it would increase diversity, thereby improving impact in the longer run.

"The report does not produce research or evidence to back up this claim. It says that such payments must not be made to wealthy trustees, but without defining a limit or considering the pitfalls of means testing. It does not explore the potential and limits of what can be done to improve diversity without paying trustees. More seriously, it does not acknowledge the key arguments against more widespread payment of trustees, so the presentation of the issue is unbalanced."

The second story was the negative coverage of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games volunteer programme. Whilst volunteering at London 2012 received almost universal (and high profile) praise, all has not been well in Brazil. The Daily Mail reported that at some events only 20% of games-time volunteers have turned up whilst The Washington Post noted the poor provision of food and refreshments for volunteers working long shifts in high temperatures. 

Rob Harris, writing for the Associated Press, highlighted that whilst the Olympic Games relies on the ‘free’ labour of tens of thousands of volunteers, International Olympic Committee (IOC) executives - who are called volunteers by the IOC - get $900 a day per diems. That’s in addition to all meals being provided, premier access to Olympic events and fully funded stays at luxury hotels near the venues. On top of that, IOC president Thomas Bach receives a $250,000 a year allowance for his ‘volunteering’!

I would suggest the link between these stories is clear. Whilst nobody is arguing that trustees receive such vast sums of money for giving their time to our charities and good causes, we must avoid volunteering becoming a two-tier experience. We cannot let it happen that those doing a governance role are well looked after and remunerated whilst those volunteers on the ground doing the hard graft at the sharp end are poorly organised, supported and looked after.

As we did four years ago, let’s look at the Olympics and learn some lessons for the volunteering movement and civil society in general. The very negative consequences of paying governance volunteers need to be heeded unless we want yet more negative coverage of our sector’s work. Smarter thinking and better ideas are needed. Here’s hoping someone steps up to articulately champion them.

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