Posts By: Gemma Quainton

Where are all the interesting volunteering roles?

As the New Year rolled in, I did my usual routine of trying to come up with some resolutions, only this year I was determined to think of some I might actually keep.

I discarded the usual ‘eat less cake’ and ‘exercise more’ and looked instead towards ‘volunteer’. Read more on Where are all the interesting volunteering roles?…

Charities take MDGs from the summit to the streets and the tweets

If it was not for the work of charities and select sections of the media, I worry that the UN Millennium Development Goals summit and its purpose would have passed many people by.

There has been some progress on the eight MDGs, but it is, at best, uneven and slow. For example, Eastern Asia has surpassed its target already for halving the proportion of people, between 1990 and 2015, whose income is less than $1 a day. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia it is lagging massively behind.

Many charities have watched development at the current summit with a scrupulous eye. Others have actively engaged with events in New York. In a refreshingly light-hearted approach to what is, unmistakably a depressing subject, Save the Children handed out chocolate bars at the summit with the words “World Leaders, Run don’t walk: stop children dying”. The organisation has provided hundreds of tweets per day on Twitter about the summit, ensuring its coverage and use of the #MDG hashtag has been relentless. With more than 95,000 followers, this is promotion on a global scale.

Maternal Death ClockAmnesty International also produced a startling contrast to the bright lights of capitalism in Times Square with its grimly entitled “maternal death clock“. Situated streets away from the UN summit, the giant digital clock counts the number of times a woman dies giving birth – 1 every 90 seconds – in direct reference to the fifth MDG, which is behind target in every region of the world.

Sarah Brown was a speaker at the summit. In an interview with The Guardian, she highlighted the work of the White Ribbon Alliance in promoting maternal death rate awareness. She said: “When I became global patron of the White Ribbon Alliance nearly three years ago, it was clear that even the most well-informed women in this country weren’t fully aware of the problem. But once they knew, they were quickly outraged – and wanted to help.”

And this is exactly where the work of charities comes in. While the MDG summit may seem remote and inaccessible to many, explaining it and promoting its purpose is vital to securing funds for charity groups and winning hearts. Surely it’s a case of leading by example? If people see that the governments of the developed world are sticking to their word, then the public will follow suit. However, without the lasting support of both, sadly, many of the MDGs look even less achievable than they do now, five years away from the target date.

Read more on Charities take MDGs from the summit to the streets and the tweets…

Voluntary groups show there’s power in numbers

There was a sense of unity at the Protest the Pope march in London on Saturday, which is no mean feat considering there were around 10,000 individuals, many of them defined by different beliefs, lifestyles, religions and creeds.

I arrived by Tube, slightly concerned about getting myself arrested (never a good thing for a first week in a new job), and trying to avoid ‘death by pilgrims’ (the seemingly endless stream of Pope fans that stopped the traffic at Hyde Park Corner on their way to a mass in the park). The pilgrims, complete with yellow ‘pilgrim packs’ on their backs, walked with purpose, and I wondered how the anti-Pope protesters were going to measure up. We would likely lack the religious fervour and all-round excitement that had led some pilgrims to declare His Holiness ‘the true X Factor’.

My initial fears were confirmed… we were a motley crew loitering around the Tube station looking decidedly unsure and coy.

But not long after, some people who looked organised arrived – the voluntary groups. Unlike me, who had only remembered to bring my Oyster card, a packet of wine gums and a heart full of injustice, these groups had placards, banners and t-shirts, as well as the spirit needed to lift the mood.

Protest the PopeWithin minutes, congregations (excuse the pun) of voluntary groups, along with members of the public, had gathered. I saw the National Secular Society, Amnesty International, Women Against Fundamentalism, the British Humanist Association, Stonewall, Southall Black Sisters, Catholic Women’s Ordination, The Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association, the International Humanist and Ethical Union and many, many more.

And within 20 minutes, the numbers were swelling all around the grand gates of Hyde Park. The small groups became crowds; the murmurs of misgivings about the Pope became chants on a megaphone; and all of a sudden, we had found our mojo.

When you are in a crowd that grows in size that quickly, it is almost impossible to gauge its size. However, there’s a feeling that sweeps through each individual; the magic of mass protest. It’s as if we were all cells that become connected by neurons of shared belief, transforming us into one powerful, functioning entity.

After a long wait, which only served to psych up the crowd further, we began the well-trodden route towards Trafalgar Square.

The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell had told me in an email before the event that the reasons behind the march were varied: “Pope Benedict XVI says women are unfit to be priests, childless couples should be denied fertility treatment and potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research ought to be banned.

“The Pope insists that rape victims should be denied an abortion, using condoms to stop the spread of HIV is immoral and gay people are not entitled to equal human rights. On all these issues, Benedict is out of step with the majority of British people, including many Catholics.

“Most shockingly, the Pope is accused of covering up child sex abuse by clergy. In 2001, he wrote to every Catholic bishop in the world, ordering them to report all child sex abuse cases to him in Rome. They did. He therefore cannot claim that he was unaware of sex abuse. Moreover, his letter to the bishops demanded that they observe ‘Papal secrecy.’

Read more on Voluntary groups show there’s power in numbers…

More proof is needed that the big society can be built with a nudge

Persuasion is better than compulsion in making good citizens. So said Conservative decentralisation minister Greg Clark last week.

It is hard to dissent from that. One of New Labour’s enduring flaws was an unerring tendency to pass a law if it came across any form of behaviour it didn’t regard as wholesome.

Clark was taking part in a seminar to introduce research from Manchester and Southampton Universities on how to nudge citizens into becoming civic-minded and participating in socially responsible activities. Nudge has quickly become one of the Conservatives’ emerging policy tools, so it was a tad ironic that the research was commissioned by Labour three years ago, then hastily re-branded into providing an evidence base for the big society. But let’s not dwell on that.

In fact, the results gave a mixed message on the feasibility of the government’s big society plans. Yes, things like praise, recognition and simply asking can induce changes in behaviour. The experiments showed impressive results in getting people to recycle more and give to charity, though it wasn’t exactly rocket science

But volunteering proved a much harder nut to crack. In one experiment, callers to a local authority call centre were asked if they would like to take action on community issues in their local area. Sixty-three people said yes, but by the time the voluntary scheme was launched six months later only one person actually got involved.

David Cameron has said he wants citizens to participate actively in running the country. But the economic downturn and coming cuts in public spending will mean those people still in work will be working longer and harder. A quick dose of virtuous civic engagement after dinner may not be top of many people’s agendas.
The “exhausted volunteer” doesn’t sound a like a goer, as Neal Lawson of the think tank Compass has argued.

Then there is the problem of equity. As one audience member at the seminar argued, the concept of fairness is lacking in the big society. She asked her partner if he would be prepared to volunteer, and his response was: “Why should I? Bankers caused the recession, politicians spend people’s taxes on second homes – let them do it”.

Or, as Nick Clegg put it before he got his new job, the big society is “a bit like being invited to a party in a pub and finding that it’s your card behind the bar paying for everyone’s drinks.”

Read more on More proof is needed that the big society can be built with a nudge…

The strange cross-party allure of Citizens UK

In recent months one of the lesser known charities in the nation has exerted a remarkable influence over politicians across the partisan divide. During the election campaign, aside from the BBC, ITV and Sky, only one organisation could persuade the three party leaders to come together and debate with each other – the civic activism charity Citizens UK.

In this or any of its other guises – London Citizens and the Citizen Organising Foundation – the group is far from a household name. But the Con-Lib coalition government wants to replicate its model of working by training 5,000 community organisers across the country as the part of the ‘big society’ programme.

Labour is equally enamoured. Its manifesto promised a clampdown on interest rates charged by payday lenders, mirroring one of London Citizens’ campaigns. James Purnell resigned as work and pension secretary last year to train as a community organiser, while leadership contender Ed Miliband has said he wants the Labour party to become “more like London Citizens”.

In part, the interest in Citizens UK stems from the parties’ need to find some intellectual ballast in an age of political vacuity. The charity has a well-developed philosophy of community organising, based on the thinking of American activist Saul Alinsky, which seeks to bring together faith groups, schools and trade unions to unify civil society and make demands on government and the private sector.

But its strange allure across the political spectrum – it must be the only organisation in Britain to boast Iain Duncan Smith and socialist film director Ken Loach as supporters – merits explanation. For the parties, the source of the attraction is different. For Labour, London Citizens’ underdog campaigns for underpaid cleaners and immigrants represents a way of reconnecting with its roots as well as involving a more democratic, grassroots way of doing politics than New Labour “command and control”.

For the Conservatives, London Citizens and Citizens UK’s campaigns – for the living wage or to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants – don’t appear to make a natural fit. But aside from its political campaigns, the group also seeks to make communities more self-reliant, to solve their own problems rather than looking to the state for help, or, as its own mission statement puts it, “re-weaving the fabric of civil society”. According to London Citizens’ lead organiser Neil Jameson, one of its responsibilities is to make the streets safer. This is quite compatible with the Tories’ “small state, big society” rhetoric.

This is why the government is so interested in training the “neighbourhood army” of community organisers. It also indicates, as far as the big society is concerned, that the Tories’ eyes are probably more directed to the local, community level than they are to the large, service providing charities.

Read more on The strange cross-party allure of Citizens UK…

Will charities be complicit in the public-sector jobs cull?

Could a little-noticed strike brewing in Southampton signify problems to come for the big society programme of the new government?

Earlier this week librarians were balloted on industrial action over the city council’s plan to replace six full-time staff with volunteers. The council says the move will save £137,000. The issue goes right to the heart of coalition plans to, in the words of education secretary Michael Gove, “harness the idealism of volunteers” and involve citizens in the running of public services just as the axe will be falling on public spending.

The Conservative manifesto promised to “empower communities” to take over amenities such as parks and libraries that were “under threat” – presumably from budget cuts. The Building the Big Society document, published by the coalition on Wednesday, reiterated this idea with a commitment to legislate to help communities save local facilities threatened with closure. This plan has been endorsed by many in the sector including community group umbrella body, Community Matters.

As Young Foundation director Geoff Mulgan noted at the Charity Finance Directors’ Group conference last Tuesday, the key issue for the sector is whether voluntary organisations back the transfer of previously tax-funded public services to groups of volunteers as the state reigns in its responsibilities. Mulgan gave the example of a bus service taken over by a semi-volunteer-led organisation. Is this a good thing?

There are a variety of issues. Will the public react positively to being asked to help deliver services that they thought they were paying to receive through their council tax? Will the sector be seen as complicit in making cuts? As noted by many pundits, the ‘big society’ did not play particularly well on the doorstep during the election campaign.

The Network of National Volunteer-Involving Agencies, which includes CSV, Barnardo’s and the National Trust among others, released a manifesto this week calling for more volunteering opportunities in public services.

That desire seems certain to be fulfilled. But will those opportunities include previously paid-for core jobs being delivered for nothing by hastily trained volunteers? The sector needs to decide where it stands, because the question will become pressing very soon.

Read more on Will charities be complicit in the public-sector jobs cull?…

Volunteer or else! How a nudge could turn into coercion

Is the concept of volunteering as time freely given to the community being subtly undermined?

A couple of recent developments suggest that, while no one is being coerced exactly into volunteering, it could soon become an expectation which influences whether individuals get housing or progress in their career. The carrot of material self-interest is certainly being dangled in front of people to encourage them to volunteer and perhaps the stick is being readied in the background

In March, Manchester City Council announced a new policy on access to its council homes. New bands were established to prioritise access to housing for particular kinds of people. Community workers and volunteers who make their neighbourhoods “a good place to live, work and play” are to be moved up a band, so they can be re-housed faster.

Meanwhile, the Conservative election manifesto promised to transform the civil service into the “civic service” by recognising “participation in social action” in civil servants’ appraisals.

We don’t yet know if this policy will be adopted by the Lib-Con coalition, but the intention seems to be to make volunteering a factor in whether public sector workers receive pay rises or promotions (although the likelihood of public sector workers getting pay rises in the current climate, even if they volunteered six nights a week, is pretty slim).

The idea is reminiscent of then-CBI director-general Digby Jones’s draconian proposal in 2004 to withhold pay rises from staff in the private and public sectors unless they could show they have volunteered for a charity. You will volunteer or else!

The Conservatives aren’t going that far, but they clearly want to muster as many forms of encouragement as they can to get the public to contribute to their ‘big society’. Their manifesto also promised to “use the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to make volunteering and community participation something they do on a regular basis”.

The popular term for this is “nudging” and economist Richard Thaler, co-author of the behavioural economics manifesto Nudge, has been lined up as an adviser for the new government.

This creates a dilemma for volunteering organisations. One issue is whether those nudged will actually feel cajoled or bribed and resent the need to volunteer. The other is whether people will begin volunteering for completely ulterior motives.

Read more on Volunteer or else! How a nudge could turn into coercion…

Let the charity tribunal deal with disgruntled volunteers

Hardly a week seems to go by at Third Sector without us being contacted by some disgruntled volunteer or trustee. The story always runs along similar lines: the volunteers feel they have been badly treated by their charities but have been unable to find any redress other than going to the media. Invariably they have complained to the Charity Commission only to be told that the regulator does not involve itself in internal disputes.

Just this year I have reported on four such cases, involving the National Coastwatch Institute, Uxbridge United Welfare Trusts, the Pituitary Foundation and Melton Mowbray Town Estate. Many of the volunteers involved have been deeply affected by the way they feel their goodwill and passion for the charity’s cause has been thrown back in their face.

There have been calls for a volunteers’ ombudsman for several years but nothing has come of it. Volunteering England launched an inquiry into volunteers’ lack of rights last November, but it has been given a six-month extension because the issue is bigger than the organisation had initially realised.

The disgruntled volunteers who contact Third Sector are all united in the belief that volunteers need something akin to employment rights to protect them from being bullied or summarily dismissed. And with all the emphasis political parties are currently putting on volunteering as a means of strengthening society, surely safeguards must be established to prevent the volunteering experience from embittering people.

Clearly this would require legislation, but it strikes me that we have a charity tribunal sitting around with nothing much to do and an endless queue of volunteers all crying out for a taste of justice. Surely whichever party wins the election ought to do the decent thing and put the two together?

Read more on Let the charity tribunal deal with disgruntled volunteers…

Charities’ public image on runners’ online forums is extremely low

A contributor to an online running forum I frequent recently told the tale of someone who’d secured a place in the London Marathon through a gold bond owned by a well-known charity, then pulled out because of injury. But she was being chased by the charity for the full amount she’d agreed to raise.

The thread eventually ran to nearly 300 posts, and threw up a range of issues we’ve all seen before, including pay rates for charity chief executives and the amount charities spend on administration. If we didn’t know it already, these are topics that stir up public passions – and not always in a positive way for the sector.

According to the contributor, the charity later relented and deferred the injured runner’s place: a sensible move that might well have kept the supporter onside.

As with any message board, some extreme opinions were voiced. One poster attacked the fundraising ‘feeding frenzy’ of the London Marathon, claiming charities had taken over an event founded only to improve the quality of British distance running (not entirely true: one founding principle was to raise money for sporting and recreational facilities in London; another emphasised the ‘fun’ element of the event).

It was even suggested that by becoming so charity-focused, the London Marathon was actually driving down standards of British marathon running – a debatable point at best, but sadly not the point of this blog post (unless anyone out there has an opinion).

It was predictable and hardly surprising that a large number of contributors said they would shun the charity involved in future and tell others to do the same, even after it had apparently changed its mind. More disturbing were those who said such indefensible actions as this were why they never ran for charity and rolled out their own stories of perfidious fundraisers attempting to extract money from them in all sorts of ways short of actual mugging. In some quarters it’s clear that the public image of the sector is extremely low.

Of course, some people spend their whole lives being outraged, and naturally I’m in danger of over-emphasising the importance of one tiny corner of the internet, a medium in which the most extreme voices – or, perhaps more correctly, the most negative voices – tend to shout loudest.

Read more on Charities’ public image on runners’ online forums is extremely low…

Fire and brimstone missing at Unite’s mass meeting for charity workers

The mass meeting last night of charity sector workers organised by Unite showcased a side of the Labour Party rarely seen these days.

Labour MPs initially outnumbered charity workers in committee room 11 of the Palace of Westminster, as delegates battled with hordes of tourists and schoolchildren to get through security. The MPs declared themselves only too anxious to be lobbied on the woes of being a charity worker in the era of competitive tendering, while charities minister, former charity worker and Unite member Angela Smith oozed sympathy and concurred with Unite’s assessment that management in the sector needed to pull its socks up and become “more union-friendly”.

Perhaps this friendly, genteel environment accounted for the lack of fire and brimstone from the floor. One delegate from Edinburgh did his best to get the pulse racing by announcing he was “fed up” with cuts in sick pay and pensions, and of being treated as part of a “second-class workforce” by councils.

Another delegate said he was “quite emotional” about his charity’s announcement that unless its workers work four extra hours a week without increased pay the organisation could go under. “A gun is being held to our heads,” he said.

The Government was also accused of being a “disgrace” for pitting legal charities in direct competition with one another “based on price and nothing else”. But such barbs were spread relatively thinly among reasoned and, in some cases, pre-prepared analyses of contracting culture.

Read more on Fire and brimstone missing at Unite’s mass meeting for charity workers…