Wally Harbert: Volunteering England should change its game or change its name

The organisation must start articulating the voices of small, community charities or stop claiming to represent them, writes our columnist

Volunteering England does not represent volunteering "in all its diversity", writes Wally Harbert
Volunteering England does not represent volunteering "in all its diversity", writes Wally Harbert

Volunteering England does much good work, but it would do better if it acknowledged that volunteering takes many forms. It espouses a single style of volunteering that disempowers volunteers and which is increasingly out of favour.

I have chosen not to be a member of Volunteering England, so it is none of my business how it chooses to characterise volunteering. But it becomes my business when it claims to represent volunteering "in all its diversity".

Much of its advice is irrelevant to significant numbers of volunteers and the organisations that deploy them. This confuses those trying to make sense of the third sector, who will believe that an organisation with such an all-embracing title articulates the wishes and needs of volunteers as a whole. I do not want government ministers and others to believe that utterances by Volunteering England represent my position.

In its document, Investing in Volunteers, a standard which Volunteering England has agreed with other infrastructure bodies, volunteers are depicted as passive players in a game in which the rules are made and implemented by others. There is no concession to the fact that volunteers originated almost every social service in this country and continue to pioneer and control complex projects.

Investing in Volunteers largely denies the individuality, aspirations and creativity of volunteers. It does not promote management as a means of unlocking their talents. It is unmistakably an exercise in control, denying volunteers access to decision-making.

The document promotes centralised control, risk avoidance, conformity and high dependence on staff: values with which I profoundly disagree. Learning processes are depicted as one way only – from staff to volunteers. It does not recognise the possibility of staff serving as advisors and facilitators to volunteers; or the fact that potentially high-flying volunteers are not attracted by organisations that fail to offer challenges.

Volunteers are sentient beings – not widgets. This tick-box approach is delaying the day when volunteer managers can secure professional status.

Bolstered by Manifesto for change, the 2008 report from the Commission on the Future of Volunteering (set up by Volunteering England) which was greeted enthusiastically by its supporters, Volunteering England has felt able to ignore critics – but its stance has become untenable and damaging. It articulates the values of philanthropic organisations that are increasingly funded by the state, yet community and self-help groups want their own distinct voices to be heard. Volunteering England should change its policies – or its name.

Wally Harbert, formerly UK director at Help the Aged, has drafted reports for the government on volunteering and is the author of two books on the subject

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