Wally Harbert: What direction now for the Royal Voluntary Service?

Instead of jostling to hoover up public service contracts, the charity must develop a role worthy of its past or quietly fade away, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Cutting back staff is unlikely to be a sufficient response to the problems facing the Royal Voluntary Service. In the face of collapsing volunteer numbers, a fundamental policy rethink is required. RVS is vulnerable to being undercut by organisations with shorter chains of command, lower overheads and local roots. Competition will get tougher.

I comment having had a long association with RVS and its forebears. The women in green were a familiar and reassuring sight in my wartime childhood. They were on hand on the three occasions that I was evacuated from London. Later, my connections with them helped shape my career. Through my work, I came to know Lady Reading, the founder-chairman, and other senior figures and took part in the 40th anniversary celebrations in 1978. No one wants RVS to succeed more than me – yet I fear for its future.
Problems arise from three strategic decisions made when RVS reorganised some years ago. First, lacking confidence in itself and its volunteers, it declared that structural changes were required to enable it to win government contracts. It chose to follow, not lead, and placed itself in the hands of the contract culture, effectively entrusting its future to the whims of the market. It is now paying the price.
Second, the reorganisation was top-down. Volunteering is essentially a locally based activity. That is where the most important decisions are made, and where the skills and talents of volunteers are promoted, unlocked and utilised. In a contract culture, volunteering becomes little more than cheap labour unless volunteers are encouraged to innovate, accept responsibility and work towards self-fulfilment. That needs a strong, confident, local structure.
Third, RVS abandoned projects that did not fit its new template irrespective of their value and the views of volunteers. Some discarded projects continued to thrive through the resourcefulness of volunteers and help from concerned organisations. But, like elephants, volunteers have long memories.
RVS should not join the cavalcade of predatory third sector organisations jostling to hoover up public service contracts. Unless it offers services that are not readily available elsewhere it is difficult to see how it can – or should – survive. It must develop a role worthy of its past or quietly fade away.
Volunteers who make key decisions and control budgets have a greater commitment to projects in which they work. This requires staff to be enablers, not controllers, making full use of the skills, commitment and enthusiasms of local people. But paternalistic instincts prevail. Nearly all volunteer managers and their chief executives are drawn from disciplines that favour conventional top-down management.
The role of RVS is not to harvest volunteering contracts or to colonise social capital but to empower local communities. It should rediscover the values that sustained it during its formative years when it provided a framework in which one and a quarter million volunteers constructed their own leadership and support structures.

Wally Harbert is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services and UK director of Help the Aged. His book about older volunteering, Baby Boomers and the Big Society, was published in 2012


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