This carrot and stick approach to jobseeker volunteering is confusing for everyone

One of the more surprising details to emerge from the story by Third Sector  about Calder UK, the firm that has agreed to pay volunteer centres for using their services as part of its welfare-to-work programme, was its method of finding volunteer placements for jobseekers.

The Department for Work and Pensions had made it compulsory for jobseekers taking part in the programme to carry out four weeks of unpaid ‘voluntary’ work, which could be at a business or a charity. 

In order to set up the voluntary work, staff at Calder UK had given jobseekers the address of the nearest volunteer centre, without first checking with the centres that they would be able to find placements for them and without agreeing to pay them for doing so. The staff had then told the jobseekers to go to the centre and find themselves a placement.

According to some volunteer centre staff, Calder UK staff had told the would-be volunteers that the firm would “stick them in a charity shop” for four weeks if they failed to find a placement.

If I were unemployed, I would be very confused about volunteering. First there’s the carrot: once people have been unemployed for six months, they are given the chance to improve their skills by doing a spot of volunteering. As far as I’m aware, there’s no coercion involved.

But then there’s the stick: once they’ve been unemployed for 18 months, many are placed on intensive welfare-to-work schemes under the Flexible New Deal. On these, voluntary work is compulsory and some have been told they will lose their entitlement to Jobseeker’s Allowance if they refuse to take part.

The coalition government’s Work Programme may replace both of these Labour schemes. With a bit of luck, any new system will encourage those out of work to volunteer, but will stress that, by its nature, the work is voluntary.  

9 Responses to “This carrot and stick approach to jobseeker volunteering is confusing for everyone”

  1. Antony Webber

    As is mentioned at the very end of this article, voluntary work is just that voluntary, and forcing people to undertake voluntary work because they have the misfortune to not be able to find a job because there aren’t very many, hence 2.47 million people unemployed is wrong and quite frankly immoral as many of the people who volunteers assist are very vulnerable and deserve better than coerced disenfranchised people being forced to help or assist them.

    I hope we have another general election as this Conservative, sorry coalition government is becoming fascistic to say the least.

  2. peter hepburn

    Discuss? No discussion needed. Spot on. Staff and volunteers don’t have different skills-sets. They are all people with the whole mix of skills that people have and bring to the sector.

    If people are matched to the task in hand, and trained and supported well, they can do a good job, whether they are staff or volunteers. If they see injustice they are all well able to fight for the most vulnerable in society. The sector needs as much resource as it can get to tackle this huge task and we need to be open to all that people can offer to help our work.

  3. Wally Harbert

    Exactly right, Instead of tearing ourselves apart about whether trustees should be paid, it would be better to spend time considering how we can restore the spirit of charity,

  4. Chris Hornet

    Paid staff have mortgages to pay, groceries to buy, families to provide for. It is only natural that as individuals we (either consciously or self-consciously) are more cautions about what we say and how we act. That is where the real value of volunteers come in and we’ve seen time and time again that it is volunteers people feel most comfortable with and will confide in.

    The problem is whether organisations are prepared to allow volunteers to be these ‘protectors’, to allow them to speak and go ‘off message’. Organisations have got better at giving volunteers opportunties that are more skilled and more responsible but as a sector we still have a line where the thought is ‘only paid staff can do that’.

  5. Heather Buckingham

    Thank you for these comments, Rob; and, as it happens, I agree with much of what you say. You are right to point out that volunteers may in practice have much the same skills as paid employees, at least in the sense that, once someone has acquired a set of skills (or experiences, etc.), they can make a choice to use these in a voluntary rather than a paid capacity (or vice versa). However, one thing that the paper highlights is that this choice is likely to be constrained, for instance by people’s financial and family circumstances, and as a result there may be considerable variation between communities in terms of the extent and nature of volunteering. Also, regardless of volunteers’ skills and experience, there are perhaps differences in the demands and guarantees that organisations can make of, or expect from, volunteers compared with paid staff, which may have implications for service provision.

    It is perhaps worth pointing out too that the discussion paper – which incidentally has a question mark at the end of its title (although this seems to have dropped off somewhere along the way) – is intended as just that: a presentation of different research findings in order to provoke debate. So just to clarify, for instance, the view referred to above about how volunteers cannot be expected to deal with complex client needs is one that has been expressed in interviews by some of the TSOs we’ve been researching. This is not a position that TSRC is endorsing, or claiming is entirely representative.

    It is is really interesting to hear your thoughts on this, however; and I agree that the current context of budget cuts may offer an opportunity for volunteers (and perhaps paid third sector staff too?) to work increasingly ‘outside of the state’, in a way that could be less encumbered by the constraints associated with state funding. Perhaps this might also lead to more radical, value-driven voluntary action, and that is a research question which we are keen to explore. However, this raises further questions about what this kind of action might look like, who will be doing it, where will they be doing it, and why – any thoughts anyone?

  6. Danielle Trudeau

    Thanks for this! I too am amazed at the lack of global thinking being the norm and any conversations to encourage otherwise die quickly through not communicating! We are moving towards the understanding that together is better and not just a slogan, however, there is a way to go. Keep up the good fight.

  7. Gethyn Williams

    Other countries and industries are better at this than us. Techy folk seem much more attuned to international collaboration, but then they have a business model that can finance it.

    I took part in an international civil society skills exchange in Japan a couple of years ago – it’s annual and administered through NCVO. The striking thing was how common this is for Japanese civil society, and indeed many Asian countries. They have international conferences several times a year. The learning – how other countries do civil society – has been invaluable for me.

    And finally, I was really taken with Movember this year, who through the scale of their fundraising efforts globally are now powerful enough to dictate terms to cancer researchers across the globe – effectively forcing them to collaborate.

    I saw some comment somewhere this week about the VCS being ‘individually strong, but collectively weak’. Your London points echo that. London provides an opportunity for centralising VCS power and influence.


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