What is volunteering?

I was in London Waterloo this week (to get the Eurostar to Disneyland!) and one thing I noticed was the posters advertising for volunteers to be Special Constables.

I’ve sort of been vaguely aware of them before, but this was the first time I had a proper look. They have the same powers as regular police. They wear similar uniforms. They get “professional police training”. But they don’t get paid.

Is this volunteering?

I mean… they don’t get paid… but something about it doesn’t feel like volunteering. Is it a cheap way to get more police on the streets? I’m absolutely not trying to be negative about a role that I know next to nothing about, nor am I belittling the contribution made by anyone who wants to take on what looks like a very challenging role in support of their community. But it has got me thinking about what I consider to be “volunteering”.

This isn’t a new topic – in fact, it is something of a perennial discussion in the sector. The perception that volunteering is a way of getting for free work which should be paid is one of the negative images that we have to be aware of in SYA. All discussions we have about new projects and activities will typically feature a discussion about whether it is a suitable activity for volunteers. I remember one debate we had as a board (over a year ago now, I think) when we were approached by the local council who offered a potential activity for young people of painting railings in some public spaces like parks. One the one hand, it is a constructive activity with an obvious community benefit. It is an activity which lends itself well to messages about community responsibility and awareness-raising about the work that goes into keeping public facilities well-kept for all of us. And the DIY home-improvement-type activities are always popular with many young people. But on the other hand… is this exploitative? While I don’t believe the council was trying to get maintenance work done “on-the-cheap” (the idea for this activity was a part of a larger proposal which included activities and funding), it still raised questions.

This is a topic which often raises strong opinions – Mark Restall of Volunteering England raised some interesting points about it in a blog post earlier this year about the distinction between volunteering and ‘work experience’.

Volunteering is a good way to get experience and develop skills for a possible future career. Many young people volunteer through SYA in local schools – such as reading with kids in primary schools. Is this volunteering? Or is it work experience? Is there a distinction between the two? Mark’s admittedly provocative post suggests that there should be.

He also discusses issues with internships. We’ve had volunteer interns before, and it is something to be very careful about. As he notes:

…the level of commitment required and expectations within the role may push the relationship towards employment…

He mentions an important point about needing to maintain a separation in how you manage an unpaid volunteer intern with how you manage paid professional staff, which is something we’ve considered carefully in the past. We’ve had a young person go from being a volunteer in various youth projects, to being a volunteer intern working to support the running of SYA, to later applying for a full-time paid post – someone who works for SYA as paid staff now. Is this a good thing? I’ve always thought of it as a positive progression – and a valuable part of the vibrant mix that we have in SYA. I hope that we offer a varied, creative and valuable role to interns that would serve them equally well when they go to any further employment or education.

In trying to make opportunities available to all, we offer to reimburse expenses to our volunteers – making sure that noone be excluded from volunteering because they can’t afford to do it. But when does give money to volunteers turn into paying them? And if you’re paying them, is it still volunteering? Even recently, we’ve had to restructure project ideas which – after much discussion – we felt could have put us closer to paying wages than expenses. It’s a delicate situation to handle – last month, I read news about proposals for v to be exempted from minimum wage legislation for voluntary workers so that they could offer inducements to volunteers without having to worry about the young people then being entitled to receiving a minimum wage. The proposal led v to call for such an exemption to be applied to the voluntary sector as a whole.

When does ‘volunteering + expenses’ turn into poorly-paid work? Where do you draw the line?

There is often a worry about volunteers getting any benefit from their volunteer work. In some way, it’s like we don’t want them to get any benefits from it and would rather our volunteers be completely selfless. In the summer, the Criminal Records Bureau prompted this discussion about their system of offering free criminal records checks for volunteers – saying that if young people “benefit directly themselves” from their volunteer activities then they would not “satisfy the CRB’s definition of a volunteer” and therefore be liable to pay the normal fees for the CRB checks. The news all got a bit blown out of proportion, but it did raise an interesting wider topic: even if volunteers don’t receive money for their work, if they get some sort of formal qualification or accreditation at the end of a programme, is this a benefit? If it helps them with a future job or college application, then were they volunteering? Or were they just studying?

On the one hand, there is a big drive from organisations such as ourselves to ensure that volunteers are properly recognised and rewarded for their work. And I think that accreditations are an important part of this. The accreditation and the ‘Build on your CV’ incentive was a key part of the government’s Millennium Volunteers programme, as have several programmes since. But it causes concern for some, as a Home Office spokesman explained:

the effect of upskilling volunteers through qualifications … might have on the ability to meet … [criteria for ‘volunteering’]

The line gets blurred further when Universities talk about offering academic credits for volunteer work. A proposal from a public service review earlier this year suggested that volunteer work could be formally recognised as part of University degrees. On the one hand, I think this could be very positive – if students are doing this stuff anyway, then why not recognise them? The volunteer work that I did while at Uni was a big of my University experience, so why not acknowledge this in the degree? But on the other hand, if young people are doing something as a part of their degree, is it still volunteering? It wasn’t volunteering for me to do my coursework, and I didn’t get paid for that, either. How much personal benefit are we prepared to let our volunteers get?

The fact is that noone can really agree what should count as volunteering. You can see that in the massive differences between the different attempts to survey how many people in the country volunteer. The National Survey of Volunteering found that 48% of the population volunteer, and the Home Office Citizenship Survey (pdf) put it at 42%. However, I remember a survey commissioned by Samaritans while I was still a volunteer with them, which puts the number closer to 2%. One survey would have included people like the friend of mine who fed my cat while I was on holiday this week as a volunteer, another wouldn’t. Which is right? How much effort is required before we call something “volunteering”? Does it matter if you know the person you are helping? If I do the shopping for my elderly neighbour, without any formal community organisation getting involved, is this volunteering?

Increasingly, I am reading stories in the news about volunteering as a national youth service scheme. This month, the volunteer charity CSV made headlines when it published a proposal for a compulsory National Youth Service scheme – mainly because it gave journos the chance to find humourous ways to highlight the irony in linking the words “compulsory” and “volunteering”. The focus on the “conscription debate” meant that the other aspects of the programme were largely overshadowed, which was a shame. CSV talked about:

… a programme of national service … aimed at 18 to 25-year-olds … delivering projects designed to address some of the “most pressing and civic challenges” in society, such as crime, child abuse and the spread of the deadly hospital bug MRSA …

It’s an interesting proposal, and one which seems to have strayed a long way from the core principle of “volunteering”. But pointing at the extremes still doesn’t make it any easier to work out where the line should be, other than to further highlight that there is more to “volunteering” then just not-getting-paid.

David Cameron and the Conservative Party have been talking about similar proposals although they are now (unlike last year) being careful to say that such a scheme would not be compulsory. Instead, they talk about a scheme where young people “would give up six weeks to work with charities … putting something back into the community”. Again, the response to the proposal centred around questions about terminology and what it means to be volunteering:

Justin Davis-Smith, acting chief executive of Volunteering England, said “We would like to see more clarity regarding the terminology used… Volunteering, charity work and national citizens’ service are often used interchangeably” [adding that] there should be further guidance on the boundaries between compulsory service and volunteering

We might be getting near an official answer on all of this, with the Commission on the Future of Volunteering report due next month. They were commissioned to come up with an answer to the “What is volunteering?” question and spent a long time consulting widely – a consultation that I wrote a submission for.

Columns I’ve read by the chair of the commission, Lib Dem peer Julia Neuberger offer an interesting perspective on the question, such as one in March, and another last Septemer. (Despite being a Lib Dem, she seems to be a popular figure with the Government when they have questions relating to volunteering – I see that Gordon Brown appointed her as the government’s champion of volunteering when he became Prime Minister).

This should be a good thing. We need to agree on what we consider to be volunteering. The uncertainty at the moment means that smaller organisations such as us are left repeatedly second-guessing our actions, worried about a combination of the ethics of potentially exploiting young people, the possibilities of a negative perception of our work, as well as possible legislative hurdles such as minimum-wage. I imagine that whatever guidance is produced will be seen as controversial by some, though – it will be interesting to see how it is received.

5 Responses to “What is volunteering?”

  1. Laura Cowen says:

    Some really interesting points here that had never even occurred to me before. I’d never got beyond the idea of volunteering being unpaid and for a ‘good cause’. Thanks for the insights.

  2. dale says:

    From Third Sector:

    Compulsory volunteering looms

    The Government is moving closer to making volunteering compulsory for some young people.

    The development has sparked concern among voluntary organisations, which would be obliged to report non-attenders to local authorities….

  3. […] what they might have first expected from a youth volunteering charity. I’ve blogged before that “volunteering” can take many forms, and this is another fantastic […]

  4. I think you raise a valid point here.

    Compulsory volunteering is a notion often mooted. Generally it takes the form of what to do with young offenders who don’t really pose a threat. Whilst in theory is sounds great the reality is I’d not like to be the one responsible for allocating offenders to work with the elderly at home.

    National services is also a form of compulsory volunteerism “almost”.

    What irks me is when government organisations seek volunteers when they should be looking to employ more or at least be more accountable for those already employed.

    Regardless, I found your article very interesting.


  5. […] to engage with the community. This isn’t a new idea – the topic (and the inevitable questions about where to draw the line between volunteering and such programmes) has been raised many times before, but it was interesting to hear that it still being bounced […]