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Think it’s easy to define volunteering? Think again

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.”

  • Olena Baeva

    Hello Kaye,
    I guess I am one of those who fail to see the point of it.
    In your example, no, in both of your examples, private care home and charity, what is the ultimate reason volunteers do their volunteering? Is it not well-being of people on the receiving end?
    Staff profiting from establishment having volunteers is a by-product and not a final result. Having better pay heightens staff morale and they provide better care and better atmosphere, the same having more staff or funds allows the establishment provide better care. And so on.
    The whole idea of volunteering is betterment of the society channelled through the preferred means, befriending, planting trees, giving advice, etc. What it is not, or should not be, patronising the needy from a position of superiority were needy remain needy, including those who needs to do paid work to make their living. I would be delighted to know if because I do my charity work in a care home its employee can afford to buy an extra toy for their kids. Meaning I do a good job. This goes for volunteers’ input recognition, very tangible proof that this work has to done.

  • Kerry Tweed

    I think you missed some important points in the debate about the definition of volunteering – is it primarily for the community or for the individual? The vote was unclear at the end because the debate was full of VE employees voting with their CEO to accept volunteering at any definition… but I would say that as one of the panel speakers!

  • Mick Watson

    I agree and like A Smith am a charity exile too. I think it’ll be hard to shake the well-meaning amateurism tag when, in my experience, there are a lot of (decently paid) amateurs in the sector (this goes from admin assistants to chief executives and trustees). It’s a real shame.

    I have a friend who works with companies and organisations on their communications (presentations, fundraising etc). His company works with politicians, bankers and they do pro-bono work charities. He told me, rather uncomfortably, that whilst politicians and bankers may not be very popular and have their faults he was amazed at how unfocussed, unengaged and, often, late the third sector workers were when taking a course. The aforementioned politicians and bankers were diligent and focused and he feared for the third sector as a result. An anecdotal story, yes, but one that’s hard to shake as it certainly reflects my time working in the sector.

    I wonder whether the sector as a whole is too bloated? And, if so, how it could be freshened up – without it having a negative impact on those who rely on it.

  • Daniel Robinson

    I wonder whether this is partly an American influence. I’ve noticed in a lot of literature from the states that the term ‘philanthropy’ is taken to mean something professional, scientific and rational (perhaps dating back to Carnegie and Rockefeller’s scientific philanthropy), whilst ‘charity’ is seen as more of an emotional response to immediate need, which neglects to tackle the underlying causes of that needs. Personally I think it is a spurious distinction, and is based more on trying to present a particular image, rather than any real difference in approach or activities. I still prefer the term charity, both for its historic and cultural familiarity, and its capturing of the importance of love and cherishing as the prime motives.

  • Mark Atkinson

    Partnership working in all its many guises is a worthwhile endeavour provided the parties to the arrangement have a clear understanding of what exactly they are trying to achieve and what their role is in trying to achieve it. I think we have all seen just as many bad examples of partnership working as good. I personally favour the development of MOU’s as a means of taking informal group arrangements to their next level. Whilst not legally binding, the act of drawing up and signing a document which spells out the intent of the parties conveys a certain amount of gravitas and facilitates further joint endeavour.

    Notwithstanding any word used, be it partnership, informal voluntary arrangement, consortium or collaboration, all such relationships still require a body to take the lead. It is good to see that Victim Support has recognised and is doing this with the alliance it has created.

    Mark Atkinson, VCSchange