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 âvoluntaryâ 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 âstick them in a charity shopâ for four weeks if they failed to find a placement.
If I were unemployed, I would be very confused about volunteering. First thereâs 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 Iâm aware, thereâs no coercion involved.
But then thereâs the stick: once theyâve 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 Jobseekerâs Allowance if they refuse to take part.
The coalition governmentâs 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.
Read more on This carrot and stick approach to jobseeker volunteering is confusing for everyone…
Earlier this week I went to the first meet-and-greet by Nick Hurd with the sector since his appointment as the new charities minister.
It wasnât exactly at the coalface: it was a small gathering of around 50 senior charity staff at a smart central London hotel. But it was a good debut for Hurd. He charmed his audience by joking that the Downing Street launch of the ‘big society’ agenda was the first, and probably the last, time heâd have his bum on a seat at the Cabinet table.
He said he was not allowed to use the phrase âthird sectorâ any more because âthe boss doesnât like itâ. And in a short speech, he reiterated his three priorities. Youâve guessed it: making it easier to run a charity; getting more resources to the sector and making it easier for charities to work with the state. âI know I keep repeating this, but Iâll repeat it until people understand,â he said.
The chatter after Hurd left (he dashed straight off to speak about workplace giving at a House of Lords dinner) suggested the sector has warmed to its new representative.
Guests welcomed his 18 monthsâ experience shadowing the post, saying they hoped this marked a break from Labourâs revolving door of third sector ministers. And they were glad that the rhetoric about supporting charities, at least, seemed to stem from Cameron himself.
But they raised doubts about whether Hurdâs well-intentioned words would translate into anything tangible. One senior figure expressed frustration that Hurd seemed to see volunteering as a catch-all solution without understanding that supporting volunteers and paying their expenses could cost charities as much as the minimum wage.
And many expressed serious concerns that government grants would be cut before they were due to expire, and that Cameron and Hurdâs enthusiasm for involving charities in service provision would not filter down to local authorities if the private sector offered similar services more cheaply.
In that context, Hurdâs words were perhaps carefully chosen: âI hope to send a serious message about our will and our serious intent.”
Read more on Nick Hurd claimed to be serious at his first meet-and-greet, but mutterings were audible…
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 âa good place to live, work and playâ 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 âcivic serviceâ by recognising âparticipation in social actionâ in civil servantsâ appraisals.
We donât 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 Jonesâs 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 arenât 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 âbig societyâ. Their manifesto also promised to âuse the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to make volunteering and community participation something they do on a regular basisâ.
The popular term for this is ânudgingâ 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…
At university we had hustings to help students decide which of their peers they should elect to represent them on their college’s governing body.
They were heated events. We crammed a hundred or so people into a small room, gave the candidates a good grilling and scrutinised every word they said, throwing back difficult questions at every opportunity.
Before I went to the volunteering hustings on Tuesday night â the event hosted by Volunteering England at which third sector minister Angela Smith, shadow charities minister Nick Hurd and Lib Dem charities spokeswoman Jenny Willott pitched their thoughts on volunteering to those in the sector â I had wondered how it would compare.
It was different, to say the least.
Any hopes of policy announcements (entirely reasonable in the build-up to a general election) were unfulfilled. Hurd pledged to âcreate an environment in which more seems possible for peopleâ and reiterated his ambition to cut through a âthicket of regulationâ around volunteering. He hinted at a national citizenship service for young people, but when I spoke to him afterwards he refused to comment further on what this might involve, or how it might differ from volunteering charity v.
Willottâs proposals â for Gift Aid reform (she didnât specify in what way), âthinking imaginatively about capacity buildingâ and creating a âculture of volunteeringâ â did little to distinguish her party from either Labour or the Tories.
And Smithâs speech was equally low on policy announcements, with the exception of a commitment to hosting a round table with businesses to discuss employee volunteering.
I thought things might heat up when it came to questions from the floor. But the MPs managed to dodge a difficult question about funding for volunteer centres and said theyâd be in trouble with their Treasury teams if they made any firm commitments.
The only moment of friction was over the role of v. Hurd asked the audience whether they thought the Governmentâs ÂŁ150m spending on the organisation was justified, and Smith accused him of âwrigglingâ when audience members said they thought it was.
But the MPs were let off too easily. Nobody expected financial commitments, but some sense of the criteria the different parties would apply when deciding where the axe would fall in future third sector budgets would have been welcomed.
We wouldnât have given them such an easy ride in our student common room.
Read more on Smith, Hurd and Willott were given an easy ride at the volunteering hustings…