Saturday, 30 May 2015

Volunteers are not an easy answer

There are many things which puzzle and perplex me about the current "we can replace paid staff with volunteers" agenda. Chief of them is the blithe sort of assumption around that it's easy enough to swap like for like: volunteers for paid staff. I suppose it's easy enough if you don't care one way or another about public services, and there's plenty enough evidence that much of the political classes and their financial backers don't really, but for the rest of us it's not so easy.

It's a huge mistake to see volunteers as a homogeneous mass. The only thing they have in common is that they're prepared to make their time, skills and effort available on a voluntary basis, for which we should be grateful and for which reason alone they shouldn't be taken for granted. And the reason why working with volunteers isn't as simple as working with paid employees. Let's look at some of the issues:

Motives — why do people volunteer?

  • Because they can. They have the time, energy and will to be able to volunteer. 
  • Because it's useful and/or important to them. People rarely volunteer their effort for things they think would be a waste of time.
  • Because it offers something back to them. It could be the sense of a job well done or a useful contribution to a cause. It could be the acquisition of experience or a skill sets. It has to be something if the effort is to be sustained.

Constraints on your operation — availability

If you have paid staff you have the not-unreasonable expectation that during contracted hours you've got first priority on their time and you'll be able to timetable them accordingly (which is easier said than done, I know). This isn't necessarily the case with volunteers: they may perfectly reasonably have higher priorities such as work or family commitments. Even if they haven't, it's rare that somebody is able to commit enough time to cover or replace a full-time equivalent post so a few people would be required to do the necessary. And volunteers aren't available at a nice steady state over time either: availability tends to clump due to external factors such as public transport, school holidays or even market days. If it isn't critical what time/day the work needs doing this isn't an issue but most key front-line operations are defined by opening hours and for those you'll spend a lot of time working on schedules.

We're living in an increasingly high-pressure, time-poor world so people having both the time and energy to volunteer are at a premium. This pool is disproportionately made up of people getting experience before embarking on their careers; job-seekers and people returning to the jobs market; and retired people. These are also the people most likely to have a sudden change of circumstances, for good or ill, which would change their availability to you. So you could spend a lot of your time managing the churn of recruitment and induction, not to mention the potential impacts on your scheduling.

To complicate things further: are the right skill sets available at the right time? Is what's on offer what you need? (Do you actually know what you need?) Are your expectations reasonable? Is there capacity for development?

Constraints on your operation — motivation

We'll assume that initially enough people care about what you're trying to do for them to offer their services as volunteers. Will the reality of your operation confirm that judgement? Will what they get back keep them with you? Work involves at least some element of drudgery — if it was 100% guaranteed fun they wouldn't need to pay people to do it. In the absence of a salary the non-monetary rewards of work take primacy. Continuous positive feedback, a sense of worth, personal development, a sense of belonging, a job well done; these things are achingly important in the paid workplace, in the voluntary workplace they're the only things you have to offer. And offer them you must: it doesn't matter how busy you are or how much fire-fighting you're doing. Moreover, it has to be woven throughout the working experience, not offered as a periodic let's-get-it-over-with effort. In these circumstances being told casually and often that you're doing a good job and it's much appreciated is infinitely better than any formal appraisal. It takes time and effort to do, and all too often isn't. In a paid environment you can get away with neglecting the non-monetary reward of your staff in the short term because like as not the job'll still be done by your employees; it takes a while before loss of performance and increase in recruitment costs become obvious. In the voluntary environment the period where you can get away with neglect is very small; if the volunteer starts to feel that they, or the work they're doing, is unimportant then they'll vote with their feet and go and do something more rewarding instead. So you'll be spending more time recruiting and inducting new volunteers. And the pool will get smaller because word will get round that you take your volunteers for granted.


It is a wonderful thing that people are willing to do voluntary work and this mustn't be belittled or taken for granted. Volunteers are brilliant at helping bring added value to public services. Replacing paid staff with volunteers as a cost-cutting measure is more problematic. Aside from the very real moral issues involved (and the potential breaches of the voluntary codes), the saving may not be as easily realisable as assumed. Managing volunteers properly is a lot of work: just because there's no pay check at the end of the week doesn't mean there isn't a serious amount of personnel management involved, in many ways more so that with paid staff due to the number of volunteers required and the likely turnover involved. The savings you realise by getting rid of not very well-paid staff could be compromised by the cost of the management time required to keep the show on the road.

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