Rob Jackson: Volunteer centres are about so much more than brokerage

Brokerage comes at the end of the work of a volunteer centre, writes our columnist, not the start

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

The National Association of Voluntary and Community Action has recently published its annual chief officers survey report. A key finding is the important role local infrastructure plays in supporting volunteering.

Commenting on the finding of the report, the infrastructure body's chief executive, Neil Cleevely, said: "This survey is also a timely reminder of the value of local volunteer brokerage. Stuart Etherington from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations was right to highlight the importance of volunteering. I would go further and call for immediate support for local brokerage provided by local volunteering infrastructure. They have been foolishly ignored by funders in recent years, but if we lose these services we will also lose local volunteers and volunteer opportunities."

On one level I agree completely with Neil. Local volunteering infrastructure has been ignored and, in many cases, drastically de-funded over the past few years. Those volunteer centres that remain work in extremely difficult circumstances, with the threat of further cuts hanging over them as our national austerity deepens.

However, where I would disagree with Neil is the emphasis he places on brokerage.

In 2004, six core functions of local volunteering infrastructure were defined by Volunteering England:

  • Brokerage: matching volunteers to available opportunities.
  • Marketing volunteering.
  • Supporting the development of new volunteering opportunities.
  • Promoting and developing good practice in involving volunteers.
  • Policy response and campaigning.
  • Strategic development of volunteering locally – for example, positioning volunteering within local government priorities.

These core functions were at the heart of the Building on Success strategy that sought to modernise the local volunteering infrastructure in England. The overall strategy had mixed success, but the core functions of local volunteering infrastructure remain. In fact, they are the basis of Volunteer Centre Quality Accreditation*, now overseen by the NCVO.

When people refer only to the brokerage, they imply this is the core business activity of a volunteer centre. There are two main problems with this.

First, technology has now developed to the point where it is easier than ever to run a brokerage service online. You only need to observe the growth of such sites in recent years to see that.**

Second, brokerage works best when the other volunteer centre core functions are delivered first***. Brokerage comes at the end of the work of a local volunteer centre, not the start.

Consider this: if a volunteer centre works with local volunteer-involving organisations to improve their practice in leading and managing volunteers; if it helps those same organisations to develop new roles for volunteers, roles that suit the changing needs of the public; if it raises awareness of the importance of volunteering to the local community and how people don’t have to commit their entire lives to volunteering; if it supports and develops a positive local content for volunteering; if it does all these things, brokerage will be a success.

Why? Because if organisations are more volunteer-friendly and have opportunities that meet their needs and those of volunteers, if people understand volunteering and how it helps them personally and their communities, and if the local political context is supportive of volunteering, then more people will want to volunteer, better opportunities will be open to them and they’ll have more fulfilling experiences.

Navca is right: local volunteering infrastructure does need better funding and support. Volunteer centres are important and massively undervalued.

But if we want to realise their potential, we have tell the full story of how volunteer centres affect their communities, not just focus on the limited role they play in matching volunteers to opportunities.

*Readers will note that the NCVO has consolidated the original six core functions down to five.

**Of course, not every online brokerage site is a good one. Nor will every potential volunteer find the internet is the best place to go for help to volunteer. Most volunteer centres work with people who need additional support to volunteer that online information simply cannot provide.

***Perhaps this is why the NCVO now lists brokerage last in the list of core functions?

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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