Rob Jackson: When celebrities volunteer

High-profile supporters commonly meet the definition of volunteers but are rarely treated as such, argues our columnist

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

August is silly season for news, both in the mainstream and our own sector. So it was perhaps no surprise to hear gossip column reports last month that singer Ed Sheeran was intending to take time out to volunteer in his local Sue Ryder charity shop.

One volunteering body in Australia was quick to respond, raising questions about Sheeran’s motivation if he did indeed announce his plans in advance and questioning whether the shop really wanted to be under siege from his fanatical fans.

Rather than get into specifics, I want to look at the wider issue of celebrities as volunteers.

In my blog back in 2012 I responded to a Guardian blog that celebrity supporters were more than just volunteers – they were donors. I argued that the perspective expressed by the anonymous Guardian blogger suggested "volunteers do the menial work, the things that have no real significance, while ‘donors in-kind’ get on and do the important stuff. Paid staff in the sector often feel comfortable recognising tin rattlers as volunteers but would rarely apply the v-word to other activities that are more comfortably labelled as donor in-kind or pro bono. This kind of attitude reveals a massively low opinion of volunteers. It is nothing short of institutional marginalisation of the biggest workforce in the sector. It reveals an elitism and snobbery that many would argue doesn’t exist in our values-driven sector."

This is an issue Susan J Ellis and I tackle head on in our new book, From The Top Down – UK Edition: "Another group of high-profile supporters who are almost always volunteers are an organisation’s patrons, public figures such as politicians and well-known celebrities such as sports or film stars. These people commonly meet the definition of a volunteer but are rarely seen or treated as such because their status seems so much more important. For example, the work of celebrity supporters is often coordinated by a dedicated post in the fundraising or marketing team. We have had plenty of experience dealing with such staff members, who absolutely do not see themselves as managing volunteers (as if such a role were beneath them!) and therefore do not employ position descriptions, induction and training, or the other helpful tools that work with ordinary folks. Organisations therefore do not always receive the kind of results they want from celebrity endorsement; they hope for goodwill but can instead suffer through notoriety."

Whether Sheeran volunteers or not, the time has surely come for charities to start taking the volunteer management aspect of celebrity engagement more seriously. No more side-stepping good practice because a fundraiser doesn’t want to be thought of as doing volunteer management or because a celebrity has some "special" status. Look where that got us with Jimmy Savile.

PS – For some insightful and intelligent thinking on the issue of celebrities as volunteers, I can recommend Eileen Hammond’s excellent book Patrons, Presidents and Personalities, published by the Directory of Social Change.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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