I think I have found the common thread that unites people who work in volunteering: they love a good debate, but they know it will never lead them to agree.
The topic for discussion at Volunteering England’s AGM earlier this week was ‘Volunteering for profit: is it ever ok?’
John Ramsay, head of volunteering at Age Concern and Help the Aged and a panel member for the debate, acknowledged early on that some people struggled to see the point of it.
When he told his colleagues about the discussion topic, he said, their response was: “Rather than having your esoteric debate, why don’t you come back to the office and do some work?”
At first, I was on his colleagues’ side. Surely the answer is simple: if you do unpaid work for a charity or a community group, it’s volunteering. If you do it for a business, it’s work experience. Why waste time talking about it?
But as it turned out, things got much more complicated. A divide emerged between the stalwarts who thought volunteering should only happen in the voluntary sector, and the movers-with-the-times who had different ideas.
What if, for example, you volunteered as a befriender in a private care home? The job has to be done by a volunteer, because residents appreciate the efforts of someone not paid to be there for them. But the home might make more profit by having befrienders.
And anyway, an audience member pointed out, many charities tender for contracts from local authorities. If having volunteers means a charity wins a contract, and thus expands and starts paying its staff more, aren’t those staff making profit from volunteering?
All sensible points, I was thinking, but why does it matter what ‘counts’ as volunteering and what doesn’t? Justin Davis Smith, Volunteering England’s chief executive, told me some volunteer centres refused to refer volunteers to private sector organisations. And that’s why it mattered.
So it’s a shame, really, that no-one could agree. The closing comment from David Brindle, public services editor at The Guardian and chair of the debate, was telling. “There seem to be a lot of unresolved issues here. Maybe you should sort them out before you start talking to the media.”