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Volunteer workers are more than just free labour

Supporting volunteers means organisations increasing talent and boosting morale, says Volunteering England

The Crown Centre is a lifeline for vulnerable people in the deprived area of Stonehouse, Plymouth. As well as managing the Plymouth Foodbank project, ensuring those in crisis do not go hungry, the scheme runs a cafe, lunch club, job club and coffee mornings.

But like many grassroots charities, it has scant resources and only four paid staff; it is only able to support those in need thanks to its 47-strong band of regular volunteers who cook, do administrative work and support centre users. Earlier this month, the centre won an Investing in Volunteers award from volunteering support agency Volunteering England.

Volunteers are the footsoldiers of the big society and the recent white paper on giving stressed the importance of those who give their time for free. Around 22 million people volunteer each year and the estimated volunteer time to the UK economy in 2010 was £18bn, according to Volunteering England.

As the cuts start to bite, the increasing reliance on unpaid workers means the management and development of volunteers is vital. Volunteering England’s Volunteer Rights Inquiry, launched last year following concerns that the standard of volunteer management was low, recently demanded organisations follow good practice, achieve reconciliation when things do go wrong, and take responsibility for their volunteers’ wellbeing. While it is clear why a focus on continuing professional development in volunteering is worthwhile, just how do you justify the time and expense involved in investing in this area?

Maria Mills, Crown Centre project manager, says that aside from the obvious benefit to volunteers of volunteer development, the charity itself reaps rewards. “When we write funding bids we can say with every confidence ‘come and speak to our volunteers’, we can say we’re doing our very best for this person, they give best to us,” says Mills. Every week, adds Mills, around 30 of the centre’s 47 regular volunteers help out, supporting 120 service users.

In addition, Mills estimates that as half her volunteers have health or dependency issues – her “supported volunteers” – it is even more vital that the unpaid are valued. Mills estimates 60% of her working week is spent managing volunteers, but without them, the centre could not function.

Investing in Volunteers, an accredited scheme that benchmarks organisations against good practice in volunteer management, formalised the centre’s attitude to its unpaid staff, resulting in what Mills calls a “next steps” approach: “We find out what is it volunteers like to do, what’s their end goal, and three months later we see how those goals have changed. We have these things in place so everyone gets treated the same. It’s a much more level playing field with paid employment.” Supporting volunteers, says Sinéad Whelan, Volunteering England head of marketing and operations, means an organisation grows its own unpaid talent and boosts morale, while the volunteer learns skills and meets their own personal development goals. “All of this will be more important than ever in the current climate, where skilled volunteers will play a key role in ensuring that vital services remain open,” says Whelan.

Like the Crown Centre, the RAF Association, which supports former and serving personnel and their families, actively supports the progress of its 400 volunteers. The organisation runs its own accredited courses for unpaid welfare advice staff. “We give volunteers a career path they can chose to take and we train them to whatever level they feel comfortable,” explains Tricia Freer, director of welfare. “Our view is that our volunteers, although unpaid, still have an important job to do and need training and support to do that job well.”

After an interview, reference process and induction, successful volunteers attend a level one course in welfare. The three day residential course includes teaching volunteers about welfare benefits, how to fill in forms and signposting to other services. Successful trainees become honorary welfare officers and, if they wish to develop their skills in more complex welfare areas, they can attend a level two course that builds on their benefits system knowledge and develops their interpersonal skills.

Annually, the association spends £80,000 on volunteer courses. “I justify the cost in two ways,” stresses Freer, “we work with very vulnerable people and having skilled volunteers minimizes our risk, and if you don’t appreciate how precious a resource your volunteers are, you won’t get the right calibre of person.”

From a fundraising perspective, demonstrating you value volunteers and have a vision for their future – and therefore for your charity’s future – can be attractive. Billy Dove, chairman of the City Bridge Trust, the grant-making body which part funds the RAF Association, adds: “You can’t put too high a price on the value of volunteers – they are the life blood of the voluntary sector. Investing in volunteers creates win-win opportunities – volunteers bring a fresh perspective and add value to the organisations they support whilst themselves gaining new skills and experience.”

It would be a huge error, as Volunteering England chief executive Justin Davis Smith says, to take the unpaid for granted as free labour. “It takes time and money to effectively manage and support volunteers, and they themselves require training and development,” he says. “But if volunteering is going to be an even more prominent feature of our society, attracting and retaining those volunteers is of paramount importance.”

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