Editorial: Should volunteering be turned on its head?

Two reports this week illustrate that volunteering is evolving, and charities need to think harder about how they organise it, says Stephen Cook

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Two reports this week have put the spotlight on volunteering and raised some uncomfortable points. The first, by the consultancy nfpSynergy, suggested charities should respond to inquiries about volunteering more rapidly and be more responsive to what volunteers want to do.

The second, by the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing, warned that retired volunteers will increasingly want to use their specialist skills, and that charities will have to employ people to do the more menial tasks traditionally done by volunteers, such as stuffing envelopes.

The most pertinent response to the first report came in a comment on our story from Kate Bowgett, who points out that the priority for charities is to fulfill the needs of their beneficiaries rather than those of their volunteers. She suggests that would-be volunteers who are focused primarily on their own interests should instead consider signing up for night classes in macaroon-making or learn to play the flugelhorn.

Beneficiaries should come first, of course, but that doesn’t mean that charities shouldn’t re-examine the way they deal with volunteers and try to make more effective use of them. In some parts of the sector it’s still common to hear volunteers spoken of as a bunch of nuisances who should knuckle down and do what they’re told. This attitude leads to the eruption of nasty disputes from time to time.

The commission’s report contemplates, in effect, the need to think more constructively about how to recruit and use volunteers and even turn the traditional set-up on its head. Instead of the skilled jobs being done by staff and the donkey work by volunteers, how about vice-versa? It could certainly be a way of saving money, but it could also be a formula for chaos.

Realistically, it’s a question of finding the right balance for each charity, with its particular needs. The general message is that the nature of volunteering is evolving, and those who don’t respond thoughtfully and constructively won’t get the best out of the increasing cohort of people that could potentially come on board.

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