IPPR North recently published an excellent report, The Value of Volunteering in the North, and I want to highlight four takeaways of interest to leaders of volunteers, senior managers, trustees and funderss
Government isn't really helping
The report’s authors clearly make the point that the efforts of successive Westminster governments have made little difference to volunteering. Significant sums have been invested in recent years on the "assumption that a large ‘untapped resource’ of volunteers exists". Yet:
This intention, while laudable, might be slightly misplaced. There is little evidence that successive interventions have made any difference to the headline rates of volunteering
It is also noted that employee volunteering schemes and initiatives such as the National Citizen Service programme produce "‘ephemeral’ volunteering experiences." Ouch!
Will government listen? I doubt it, but it should. Over the past 20 years, huge sums of public money have been poured into a succession of vanity projects. It’s time to start funding more things that actually work.
It isn’t (just) about numbers
In an era of impact measurement, the measurement of volunteering often falls woefully short. Simplistic input metrics dominate still. For example, success equals more volunteers and more hours, regardless of the impact of those volunteers and hours spent. IPPR North helpfully challenges this mindset:
The…aim should not simply be to increase the number of volunteers. What is most important to most third sector organisations is the quality and depth of support they receive, rather than additional numbers of volunteers.
…These results highlight the limitations of using a blanket measure to understand volunteers’ contribution to society. While using an estimate of hours worked is useful insofar as it provides a sense of the very significant scale of volunteering… this analysis on its own is also clearly a huge oversimplification.
A move away from input-focused measures of volunteering is long overdue. They persist because they are easy. More impact-focused approaches might seem difficult to implement, but the hard work pays off, doing much better justice to the valuable contributions of volunteers.
Volunteers are essential, not just nice-to-haves
Despite the sector’s reliance on voluntary effort, negative prejudices about volunteers abound. For example, volunteers are incompetent and/or cannot be given real responsibility because they are unpaid.
The IPPR North report helpfully reminds us that:
Perhaps contrary to the perception among the public of volunteers as well-meaning but often ineffective individuals, it is clear from the data that a large proportion of third sector organisations would simply cease to operate without the ongoing commitment of unpaid volunteers. This includes a sizeable chunk who rely upon volunteers to work unsupervised.
Building on this, one of the authors of the report is on record as saying:
We might sometimes think of volunteers as well-meaning but ultimately ineffective. This report demonstrates without a doubt that this is not the case. Without them (volunteers), a vast swathe of civil society organisations would simply cease to exist, with huge consequences for places up and down the North, and for the state of dthe Northern Powerhouse economy.
The anti-volunteer prejudice of some (many?) in our sector needs challenging, and this report is a helpful reminder of and aid to thats
Funders need to do better
Finally, the report acknowledges the frustrating tendency for many funders to support only new work, rather than tried-and-tested approaches. It also highlights that:
Third sector organisations that are most reliant on volunteers tend not to use public funding in comparison with other third sector organisations with a different staffing profile. Instead, they tend to source their funding insome from the local community and/or charitable foundations.
Perhaps funders need to give more attention to understanding how best they can support volunteer engagement, including better measures of success. That would make a big difference to what gets funded and the impact volunteers can have on society.
Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant