Charity volunteers are the unsung heroes who selflessly dedicate their time and skills to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Their invaluable contributions form the backbone of charitable organisations, from raising funds, manning foodbanks, to being a trustee. In Volunteers' Week 2023, we should all celebrate the benefits they bring to organisations and themselves. At the same time, it's a moment to reflect on the challenges as well, and the importance of maintaining accountability in a society where volunteers are increasingly replacing paid positions.
Celebrating volunteers: the ripple effect of goodness
Charities thrive on the commitment and passion of volunteers. These individuals offer their time, skills and expertise, which can greatly benefit organisations in all sorts of ways. Harnessing the power of kindness, charity volunteers can breathe energy and joy into charitable organisations; they also can bring fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and a diverse range of talents that can enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of operations. Moreover, their dedication and enthusiasm often inspire others to get involved and support the cause.
On the other hand, volunteering is also good for the volunteer. Engaging in charitable work can provide an opportunity for personal growth, skill development, and increased social connections. Volunteers often gain a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction by making a positive impact on their communities. Helping others is also widely credited with boosting mental health and wellbeing.
Different types of volunteering roles
Peek behind the curtain and you will find a diverse tapestry of volunteer roles. From lending a hand in a charity shop or food bank, to offering specialised skills as a benefits adviser or charity trustee, volunteers play a vital role in diverse areas. Some volunteers enjoy the direct interaction with beneficiaries through frontline services, others prefer to offer support behind the scenes, handling administrative tasks or helping with fundraising efforts. The beauty of volunteering lies in its flexibility, so if you are thinking of becoming a volunteer be sure to choose a role that aligns with your interests, skills, and availability.
Challenges: balancing power and expectations
Of course, as with anything we do in life, volunteering has its challenges too. Problems occasionally arise as the lines blur between empowerment and entitlement. The role of Volunteer Manager within charities is an important one, being responsible for sensitively managing volunteer expectations and maintaining a healthy power balance within the organisation. In truth, without the expertise of a Volunteer Manager to guide me, it isn't something I always got right early in my career as a charity CEO, but I hope I learned from experience. A very few volunteers develop a sense of entitlement, demanding preferential treatment due to their donation of time. Balancing volunteer needs and expectations with the overall objectives of the organisation can require careful communication and setting clear boundaries. Volunteer managers will ensure that volunteers understand their roles and responsibilities whilst also ensuring they feel appreciated and integral within the charity team as a whole.
Legal challenges and accountability
Volunteer involvement is not always straightforward and must be carefully navigated to avoid legal complications. Performance reviews, appraisals, and certain types of supervision belong to the world of employment, and if applied incorrectly can inadvertently blur the line between paid work and unpaid volunteering. Organisations using volunteers must familiarise themselves with guidelines that differentiate between the two categories to maintain compliance. By establishing clear policies and procedures, including proper volunteer agreements and role descriptions, you can protect both your volunteers and your charity's own legal standing.
Volunteers replacing paid jobs: accountability and fairness
I was recently involved in a debate around using volunteers instead of paid employees as a way of partly helping with the social care crisis. I must admit it left me feeling a bit queasy, because the discussion was going beyond the realms of befriending which is often a volunteering role, and included helping people to get up and dressed etc. The implication seemed to be that if we didn't use volunteers, that nobody would be available, so it was the least worst of two options. But it left me wondering how we had got to this position in the first place as a society. About what happens to accountability when society relies on volunteers to help care for the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly and disabled. What does it say about the value we put on these people's lives that we no longer deem them worthy of care from trained and appropriately paid social care staff? There should be money available if we care enough, and personally I feel passionately that charities mustn't be drawn into and become inadvertently complicit in the decline of an already impoverished sector.
When volunteers replace paid positions within an organisation, questions of accountability and fairness are likely to arise. While volunteers play a crucial role in enabling charities to operate within limited budgets, it is essential to ensure that those who need paid employment are not unfairly displaced. Organisations should always evaluate the ethical implications and strive for transparency, because even as charity leaders operating sometimes on a shoestring, we have a responsibility to foster a sense of fairness both within our own organisations and in society at large.
In Volunteers' Week, we should celebrate the incredible contributions volunteers make to our communities. But we should also ensure that they are not taken advantage of, and neither are we by exploiting them in roles which should never be for unpaid work. That's a disservice to our wonderful volunteers, and a disservice to us all.
Jenny Hopkins is the founder of The Boiling Frog. Having spent the earlier part of her career in publishing, she switched to the charity sector and became CEO of a local deaf charity. Over a period of ten years, she is credited with transforming it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. She has since stepped back from that role to embark on a PhD about the impact of marketisation on deaf charities, alongside mentoring other CEOs of small charities. She uses The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge her own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. She also volunteers as a trustee for two charities.