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Arise Sir Stephen – and honour is satisfied

For a long time it was a moot point whether Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, or Stephen Bubb, head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, would make it first on to the honours list.

Etherington had length of service, gravitas, a longer track record and a diplomatic ability to impress his views on people without falling out with them. He was cautiously even-handed in his treatment of politicians.

Bubb was flamboyant, prepared to be controversial, and willing to make a noise in pursuit of his main theme of increasing public services by the sector. He was an admirer of Tony Blair and New Labour, but also at ease with the Tory-led coalition. And his first act on being knighted was to give an interview to the Times calling for a tax on bankers’ bonuses.

Those who backed Etherington were vindicated last June when he was made Sir Stuart in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Now, only six months later, Bubb has been knighted in the New Year Honours List. So two men who are often portrayed as rivals are now on a level footing in that sense at least.

Etherington’s main achievement has been the NCVO’s twelve-year-long fostering and taking foward of the Deakin report, which led to the Compact and the new framework for charities in the 2006 Act. Bubb’s has been to cajole and chivvy politicians during his ten years at Acevo into accepting the case, and improving opportunities, for the sector to deliver public services.

But both men would probably be the first to accept that the most significant accolades in the honours list go to the many scores of people all over the country who contribute day by day to the well-being of their communities through their charitable and other voluntary work.

One example, picked almost at random from the 998 people on the list, is Jane Howitt, who since 1988 has given on average 20 hours a week to East Devon Audio-Description Service for blind and partially-sighted people. People like her make for the good society that exists – has always existed – in most parts of the country.

The government is spinning the list as a recognition of contributors to its big society agenda. That’s fine too – but the challenge that faces ministers in the coming year of cuts is to order matters in such a way as not to throw the big society baby out with the deficit bathwater.

  • John Clarke

    I fully understand and echo your concern that the stories of volunteers and volunteer-driven work are not being told.

    However, I can also see the reason behind this.

    The UK charity sector is obsessed with fundraising and money. All opportunities to talk about and publicise what we do become dominated by the fundraisers’ agenda. While I won’t go into detail here, it’s a theme I visit extensively in my other comments and own blogs.

    There has been one notable exception to this recently, with the story and efforts of the Olympic volunteers being widely covered and celebrated. Although it does concern me that this seems to be running into a situation where Games Makers are being hailed and mentioned at the expense of all other volunteers.

    The few high-profile organisations who can influence the news agenda must understand that “it’s not always about fundraising”, and that the charity sector should use its few moments in the spotlight to share a multitude of great stories and acts.

    • Rob Jackson

      Couldn’t have put it any better myself John, well said.

      This is a frequent topic of my own posts for Third Sector online and it is nice to see some of my fellow bloggers coming round to a way of thinking that recognises the value and potential of volunteering.

    • Violet

      Not every charity/non-governmental organization has volunteers. Many assume they do. Charities that provide safe fulfilling volunteering experiences that are valued by their community and are well managed need to fundraise, as contrary to what a lot of people think, you can’t provide this properly on the cheap. Services provided through trained, supported and supervised volunteers enrich their community and provide a safe service when it’s done to a high standard but there is a cost that has to be fundraiser for.

      • John Clarke

        Violet, I do not – and have never – argued that fundraising is unnecessary. My issue is that talking about fundraising to the exclusion of all other activity can be detrimental.

        I discuss this more in the comment here:
        http://robjackson.thirdsector.co.uk/2013/01/03/do-we-really-have-to-do-more-with-less/#comment-755860532

      • Rob Jackson

        Correct Violet. Not every charity does have volunteers. But the vast majority do and the overwhelming majority have volunteers and NO paid staff. Something debate about ‘the sector’ frequently fails to overlook.

        You are also quite right, good volunteer engagement comes at a cost. Freely given but not cost free is a good description of volunteering engagement.

        However, like John I have never argued that fundraising is not important or needed. The issue is that when people talk of giving they only mean giving money, as if that’s the only resource organisations need.

        You may find my current blog for Third Sector online helpful as it not only outlines my views but shows how good volunteer involvement might make fundraising even more effective. You can find my blog at http://robjackson.thirdsector.co.uk/2013/03/01/time-for-a-change/

  • Grant Hayward

    What a really interesting article and thread of discussion!

    I work to encourage and support businesses to engage with charities and community groups for mutual benefit (Rob, you may remember me from the MVNSS project at VE). This includes but is not limited to employee volunteering.

    One of the greatest challenges I face is small charities and groups who either do not feel they can manage the volunteers, or do not see the longer-term benefits. However, telling more stories is most definitely a way to overcome this. Most importantly, because successful volunteering experiences often lead to other forms of support – including fundraising. So often, volunteers spend a little time inside charities and groups and are wowed by their work. They then go off as fantastic advocates.

    Just two examples…..
    At an event held during Trustee Week at the end of last year, I heard from a very small charity that decided to take on its first employee. It needed someone to draw up a contract, which was taken up by an employee from a local company. The job was done, the employee enjoyed the work, loved the organisation and asked if they needed any further help. After meeting the board, she is now a trustee.

    Working with a very large company to find an appropriate volunteering opportunity, I came across a charity where an employee was keen, but a manager was reluctant. Sitting down with members of both organisations, I was able to facilitate a range of activities which brought out the skills of the employees and, most importantly, solve a number of day to day issues at the charity. After a fantastic day that really did make a difference and was not your typical “team building” employee volunteering, a number of staff were so taken by the charity that they were offering to jump out of aeroplanes to raise funds for them!

    It is difficult for small charities and groups in particular, and they do need help and support – which is out there from a range of places, including experts within Volunteer Centres. But sharing stories like these should help to inspire more organisations to embrace and encourage volunteers.

  • Wally Harbert

    A breath of fresh air. Well done Rob. This particular windmill has been tilted so many times that its sales are in perpetual; motion.

    • Wally Harbert

      Before anyone else tells me, that should be “sails”.

  • Oliver Benson

    There’s a lot I’d agree with what you say here, that volunteers do provide something that paid employees can’t, but I’d think the former paid librarians at New Cross library would probably take issue with your assertion that the new venture using volunteers was not job substitution. And I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that the library shut at lunch simply because of the whims of the staff.
    As this recent Suzanne Moore (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jun/05/digital-economy-work-for-free) column suggests,”what is being eroded is not only actual wages but also the very idea that work must be paid for”

  • Sue Hine

    “Recognition isn’t just saying thank you, it also carries the meaning of recognising something as important or valid”.
    Thanks for pointing this out. Trouble is I think we fall short in demonstrating the importance and validity, and the uniqueness of volunteering. We need to get past the platitudes of appreciation. Right now it’s National Volunteer Week in New Zealand and while there is plenty of media activity and functions planned throughout the week the ultimate impact remains to be evaluated.