Volunteering and the recession: a view from the front line

Volunteer centres are under pressure as the Government seeks to tackle social problems with brokerage schemes. Clive Pankhurst, chief executive of Volunteer Centre Southwark in London, tells Kaye Wiggins about the challenges

Clive Pankhurst, chief executive, Southwark volunteer centre
Clive Pankhurst, chief executive, Southwark volunteer centre

"Nobody could accuse us of being lavish," says Clive Pankhurst, chief executive of Volunteer Centre Southwark. The organisation runs a big operation on a tight budget, setting up hundreds of volunteering placements each month from its modest office near London Bridge.

But the centre, the second largest in a national network of more than 300 volunteer centres, may find its budgets getting even tighter over the next few years. Its dilemma is common to many charities in the recession: falling income matched with rising demand for services.

Increased demand for volunteering is largely a result of rising unemployment in the recession. It's also the result of a series of Government plans to use volunteering to address social issues. Unemployment, antisocial behaviour among young people and immigration are three of the latest issues to which volunteering has been offered in response.

But Pankhurst, who has worked at the volunteer centre for six years and been its chief executive for two, says he is worried that the £50,000 per year the centre receives from Southwark Council will be "massively cut" as councils rein in their spending.

"A lot of volunteer centres have already had their funding cut," he says. "In other areas, councils aren't funding them at all. It's crazy. The network is very patchy, which is why it needs to be funded by central government."

But government funds for volunteering don't always help the centre's work. Pankhurst says the Department for Work and Pensions' £8m volunteer brokerage scheme, through which charities BTCV, CSV, Volunteering England and v are paid to act as ‘brokers' matching unemployed people with volunteering placements, has made his life more difficult.

"We've been doing brokerage for more than a decade and we are used to dealing with referrals from job centres," he says. "But now the DWP has set up a competitor locally, without having involved us in the decision to do so.

"Even in the regions where volunteer centres are running the scheme, it's often a burden for them. Many are already swamped with volunteers and are struggling to place more."

Pankhurst says it can cost between £500 and £2,000 to broker a successful volunteering placement, which he says is far more than the DWP is paying under its scheme.

"I'm also worried about the scheme's sustainability," he says. "Once the funding runs out, the brokers will stop doing volunteer brokerage."

So how should the Government, keen to encourage volunteering in the recession, be spending its budget for the sector?

"It sounds dull, but there needs to be more funding to improve the existing infrastructure," Pankhurst says. "A uniform volunteer centre service, in which every town had its own centre with a shopfront that was recognised locally, would raise volunteering's profile and make it easier to organise."

More broadly, he says, there should be greater emphasis on what's already there and less on trying new things. "The Mayor of London's office is working to get more people volunteering at the moment," he says. "I've advised it to support the development of infrastructure so that there are plenty of decent opportunities around, rather than creating a new campaign to encourage new volunteers who may later find themselves disappointed with their placements."

Pankhurst reckons much of what needs to be done is quite straightforward: "Volunteer managers, for example, need advice lines they can call when they're faced with difficult situations."

But most of all, he says, volunteering needs to remain voluntary. "Politicians and the public often fail to understand what volunteering is about.

"Schemes such as fast-track citizenship, youth civic service and the New Deal programme, under which unemployed people risk losing their Jobseeker's Allowance if they don't turn up to volunteering placements, introduce an element of coercion.

"I'm not denying that these can be great schemes with benefits to society. But politicians need to be clear about what they are, and stop attaching the ‘volunteering' label to things that aren't really voluntary."

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