Sean Cobley: Government sees volunteers as beneficiaries - the tail wags the dog

The new chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers talks to Kaye Wiggins about his difficulties with DWP's volunteer brokerage scheme

Sean Cobley, chair, Association of Volunteer Managers
Sean Cobley, chair, Association of Volunteer Managers

Sean Cobley's new job is a tough gig. Asked what big issues he will be dealing with in his role as chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers, he says: "The main issue is understanding what our profession is, and getting other people to understand it."

Cobley, who is also head office volunteers manager at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, knows this will be no mean feat. "Volunteer management is in its infancy as a profession, and volunteer managers have a collective low self-esteem," he says. "A lot of them are under-supported and under-resourced, and they often manage volunteers in addition to other roles.

"In a recession, volunteer managers may be the first to be made redundant. It's vital that we make charities see volunteer management as central to their purpose."

This is particularly crucial given the importance the Government has placed on volunteering lately, he says.

Fast-tracking the citizenship applications of immigrants that volunteer and encouraging unemployed people to do voluntary work through an £8m volunteer brokerage scheme are two recent examples.

But Cobley thinks that although this commitment to volunteering is worthwhile, the Government is missing a trick in its approach.

"It's frustrating," he says. "The Government thinks having more volunteers equals better volunteering, but that isn't necessarily the case.

"And it prioritises the needs of the volunteers over the needs of the organisations they volunteer with. With the brokerage scheme, for example, the Government should have looked at the benefits organisations could get from involving volunteers, then sent the appropriate number of people to them.

"Instead, it sees volunteers themselves as the beneficiaries. It seems that the tail is wagging the dog."

This is also true of the sector more broadly, he says. "There is a tendency to forget why charities and other groups involve volunteers."

Cobley's first move after he is officially made chair at the association's annual general meeting on 26 September will be to try to raise the organisation's profile by talking to as many people as possible.

"Chief executives need to recognise the importance of good volunteer management, so I'll be meeting a number of them to get our message heard," he says.

"I'll also be talking to other people in the sector, such as Volunteering England and the Office of the Third Sector. We're looking to collaborate with others rather than to criticise or work against them: that was always our purpose."

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