Rob Jackson: Will the charity sector evolve its approach to volunteers in the new decade?

It seems that people no longer need our precious sector institutions to tackle the issues they care about. Charities must keep up or risk irrelevance

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

The 2019 word of the year was recently announced. It’s "climate strike". I know – it’s two words. Don’t blame me; blame the Collins Dictionary. If it wanted one word, though, perhaps it should have been "volunteer".

Quite rightly, climate change issues have dominated the headlines this year. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have cropped up everywhere throughout the past 12 months. And the great thing is that Greta and the XR activists are all volunteers.

Of course, that’s not how the media have reported it. It’s not the language the government has used. And it’s not how society sees them. XR volunteer activists are disrupting, creating change, challenging the status quo. To most people, that’s not what volunteers do. Volunteers make tea. Volunteers staff charity shops. Volunteers don’t rock the boat. Volunteers don’t cause trouble. Volunteers don’t march down streets waving placards.

In the third sector, we are perhaps no better in our views. Volunteer managers and volunteer-involving organisations, safe in our nice cosy sector bubble, are largely ignoring this explosion of volunteer effort and impact.

We don’t talk about XR as volunteers. We don’t reach out to learn from them. We don’t celebrate their volunteering and its impact. We’re too busy worrying about recruitment and retention rates, how we will staff those regular, long-term volunteer roles, planning next year’s Volunteers’ Week events and wondering whether anyone will come to the volunteer Christmas party.

But the world is changing around us, and fast. Today people don’t need our organisations and precious sector institutions if they want to tackle the issues they are passionate about. Social media, the internet and mobile technology are enabling people to self-organise and have a real impact on the things that matter to them. They don’t need long-winded application forms, two references, health-and-safety training, risk assessments and regular supervision meetings. They don’t need paid staff to manage them or strategy awaydays to direct them.

They just get on with making change happen, seeking to address the root causes of society’s problems rather than tinkering with the symptoms.

These people and their new organisations are moving faster than the traditional voluntary and community sector is. They are catching the public’s attention better than we are. And volunteers are at the core of that.

Are volunteers truly at the core of your organisation? In many cases, if we’re honest, the answer to that question is no. They might be more numerous than paid staff, but they aren’t at the heart of fulfilling your mission. They do nice but non-essential things, leaving the real work to paid staff.

As 2019 draws to a close, we in our sector bubble are perhaps falling further behind. The way we think about, talk about and do volunteering risks becoming more and more irrelevant to people.

Will 2020 be another year in which we become even more out of touch and irrelevant? I hope not, but much needs to change if we are to find ourselves in a better place a year from now. It’s time for action.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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