Editorial: Volunteers need more than their own year

Stephen Cook, editor

Everyone feels obliged to say how wonderful the Year of the Volunteer is.

And it is, despite the fact that the Government's fingerprints are all over it and debate is often dominated by pious platitudes. Plenty of useful activities are being organised around the country, which have every chance of fostering and extending the kind of unpaid activity that helps to glue communities together. Another welcome aspect is its exposure of some important questions about how we perceive and treat volunteers.

Third Sector's recent stories about volunteers taking cases to employment tribunals have revealed the uncertainties about the rights of volunteers in the workplace and raised the question of whether the law needs clarification.

In the ensuing correspondence, it has also become clear that some organisations are aware that volunteers can be discontented and should be treated better.

In our lead letter on the opposite page, Citizens Advice addresses the question of the training of volunteer managers and puts forward the useful idea of establishing a professional body to set standards and share good practice and information.

The underlying problem is that the relationship between paid staff and volunteers is an uneasy one. Volunteers tend to feel that, since they're giving their time and skills for nothing, organisations should respond fast, treat them well and be suitably grateful. Employed staff feel that, since volunteers aren't being paid, they should be prepared to wait, play second fiddle and keep their dissatisfactions to themselves. It's the ordinary stuff of working life, but sharpened and intensified by the volunteering dimension.

Conversations on the subject produce plenty of anecdotal evidence. You want to volunteer, but you can't find the right organisation and no one seems interested. You turn up to do your bit, but there isn't anything meaningful for you to do. Or you work like a Trojan while the paid staff sit around drinking coffee. Some volunteers even feel like a nuisance, which is very damaging if they're unemployed. The scope for hurt feelings and bust-ups is obvious.

It's a difficult human relations problem, and even the organisations that are most aware of the pitfalls probably don't get it right all the time. A professional body for volunteer managers might help, but surely the real challenge is to improve our whole culture on the treatment of volunteers and give them a better deal.

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