The cost of volunteering

I keep hearing volunteers referred to as free labour – normally in the context of the “Big Society” being a way to replace paid employees with volunteers because they’re free. But at a time when policymakers talk about wanting to encourage big increases in levels of volunteering, some volunteering charities are struggling to find funding.

A point that doesn’t seem to be well recognised in mainstream media coverage of the Big Society is that volunteers are not free. In fact, they can be very expensive.

Volunteers need to be supported. (Obviously, I’m talking in the context of Solent Youth Action – a charity that focuses on enabling young people to volunteer. But still…)

Someone needs to look out for and help to create opportunities for people to volunteer.

Someone needs to check that a volunteering opportunity is safe, that the role is appropriate, and that the volunteer will be adequately supported.

Someone needs to identify any training or preparation required for a volunteering role, and help the volunteer to find the training they need – whether it’s getting a food hygiene certficate for volunteering in a community kitchen, or getting training to help prepare them for working with people with special physical or learning needs.

Someone needs to encourage the volunteer to review and reflect on what they’ve done, and what they got out of it.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The point is that to do volunteering properly (where a volunteer is supported in carrying out a well-defined and appropriate role for which they are properly prepared) takes work. And that work has a cost.

As I said, I am talking in the context of Solent Youth Action, a charity which works to enable young people to volunteer, particularly those young people who might otherwise find it difficult, such as the very young or those with additional physical or learning support needs. And I’m talking at a time where (as we feared last year) we’ve received massive cuts in our funding, leading to us having to make a large number of staff redundancies. A very sad and difficult time.

A lot of people talk about the importance of volunteering and a need to increase the number of volunteers. Finding people willing to pay for it seems to be more difficult.

To be fair, this has shown how dependent we were on state funding – both directly and indirectly. A majority of our funding was coming either directly from Government, or from organisations who themselves received the majority of their funding from Government.

There were a number of reasons how we ended up in this position, which are too long-winded to bring up here. But, whatever the reasons, perhaps this was always going to be an unsustainable approach.

In the absence of Government funding, how else do you build and support a society where young people play an active part in their community. I don’t think it can be done for free. But who will pay?

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