Getting Volunteering Right - What Role for Central Government?

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As part of our campaigning activity to promote the value of volunteering we have been working with the Social Market Foundation with a series of three events attended by key politicians and other influencers.  The latest was on Monday evening and entitled Getting Volunteering Right – What Role for Central government?

I was delighted to share the platform with Tessa Jowell MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Olympics and London and Neil Sherlock, Director, KPMG Foundation, to debate the issues.

You may be interested in the abbreviated text below of what I had to say.

We were delighted with the support volunteering generally and Scouting in particular received from Tessa and especially her commitment to look into inconsistencies within the Civil Service regarding paid leave for volunteering.

EDITED TEXT:

Scouting has offered young people adventure, fun and the chance to learn about themselves and the world around them for over a century. The benefits this brings to the youngsters themselves and to wider society have long been recognised and personally endorsed by successful entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Peter Cruddas who attribute the skills learnt to their own success.

But the positive impact on our economy, as adult volunteers put the skills and experience they have gained through Scouting into practice in their fulltime jobs, is often overlooked. As we consider how as a society we can meet the shortfall in volunteers, it is time we gave these benefits greater thought and emphasis.

This difficulty in recruiting and retaining volunteers is shared by organisations of all sizes and interests across the UK. Our own experience, however, suggests it is not lack of enthusiasm but a lack of time that is behind this shortage.

The challenge for voluntary organisations is how to ease these pressures – and encouraging employers to allow staff time off is key. Here we need a change of approach. For the best way to overcome resistance is not through appeals to altruism but by presenting a hard-headed business case. We need to demonstrate that volunteering will help employees perform better at their jobs through the training they receive and the new skills they learn.

With an estimated quarter of employers providing no training to their staff1; working with the voluntary sector can help fill the gap and equip the UK’s workforce for the challenges of the modern economy.

Scouting’s quality depends on its volunteers, and our volunteers depend on Scouting to teach them the skills they need. It is why we were very proud in 2009 to be recognized with a National Training Award from UK Skills. We believe this is one of the reasons we have managed to increase our volunteer numbers over the past few years, against the national trend. But it’s not enough.

The training our volunteers receive is one of the reasons they enjoy scouting.  Indeed, recent research shows one in five volunteer specifically to develop strengths and skills. Asked whether the skills and experiences they gained through Scouting have been of relevance to working or personal lives, 93% of volunteers answer positively2.

More than two out of three see a direct correlation between their volunteer experience within Scouting and gaining employment or career development3. These figures are confirmed by a TimeBank survey which found nine out of ten volunteers believe the new skills learnt had helped them get their first job, increase their salary or gain promotion4.

Importantly, employers agree on this positive impact on careers of volunteering. A survey for Reed Executive5 showed that 73% of Britain’s biggest employers preferred a candidate with volunteering experience, while 94% recognised that volunteering can add to personal skill-sets. Even more impressive was that 58% of employers said that voluntary work experience can actually be more valuable than experience gained in paid employment.

So what’s the problem?

Given this evidence, you might think employers would be strongly encouraging their staff to take up volunteering opportunities. The experience of our volunteers is very different. Just 53% said that their employer had responded positively to their involvement in the Scouts6.

Securing time off was seen as the biggest problem.  Lack of time is also the reason most people give for not volunteering. CSV Make a Difference Day research from 2005 found two out of three people said pressure of time was the prime reason for their lack of involvement. This reflects increased difficulties in balancing work, social and family responsibilities.

There are, of course, plenty of examples of far-sighted employers.   But in many cases, whether volunteering is supported depends more on the attitudes of local managers than any system-wide policy. This is an issue both in the public and private sector. The Home Office, for example, provides paid special leave to encourage employees to volunteer as part of their Community Cohesion initiative. But such support has not been extended across all of the civil service.

As Baroness Neuberger commented in her review of volunteering, ‘certain Government departments are currently not persuaded of the merits of employee volunteering’7.

Indeed, financial restraints have already seen this provision within the Home Office reduced to three days leave. And even among those organizations who do most to support volunteering, this is usually seen as part of their social responsibility programmes rather than central to their business as a human resources strategy.

These examples also highlight how support for volunteering is often restricted to the largest employers. Many smaller businesses see such support as an unaffordable extra rather than a benefit to their businesses. This is ironic as it is smaller organisations who are less likely to have the resources to invest in training so have most to gain from their staff improving their skills through volunteering.

So What Could be Done?

Addressing these challenges is firstly a matter of awareness. One survey found 94.4% of respondents didn’t realise that Scouts provided training8. This lack of knowledge of the skills training on offer is typical. Identifying where volunteering offers comparable learning experiences to training courses would help employers see the business benefits of giving staff time off.

One way this could be achieved is if Government support currently available for skills training in higher and further education was extended to taster sessions within the voluntary sector. So too would encouraging larger employers to share their experience of the benefits they gain through promoting volunteering with other businesses.

Greater clarity on the specific benefits would also help gain employer support for volunteering as a training activity. Accreditation will help re-assure employers about the skills that will be learnt.  Schemes including Investors In Volunteering already exist to highlight and spread good practice by employers. These could be extended to identify particular skills learnt through specific volunteering roles to help employers understand how they compare with existing training workshops or programmes.

Such a scheme, however, would also need to recognise the longer period that skills are developed through volunteering and the greater emphasis placed on learning through practical experience rather than in a single seminar.  There is no doubt, of course, that introducing statutory paid leave for volunteering would transform participation rates.

But we understand that many employers would find this a step too far, especially in the current economic climate. This helps explain why tentative proposals for a right to time-off for statutory voluntary roles have been recently put on the back-burner.  But there could be less resistance if a right to time off was linked much more directly to training.

By placing the emphasis on the specific skills and experience to be gained, employers would understand better the value to them of allowing staff time off. The new UK Commission for Employment and Skills could have a valuable role in giving employers confidence that the training offered by voluntary organisations such as The Scout Association is accredited, valuable and transferable to the workplace.

The shortfall in volunteers could also be tackled, along with a boost in skills, by extending existing schemes to help new graduates gain experience. We could build on the paid internships and secondments already offered by many charitable organisations to recent graduates. Thought could also be given to extending to volunteering the payment holidays on student loans enjoyed by teachers in particular subjects.

Conclusion

There is no simple single solution to the difficulties of volunteer recruitment. Volunteering organisations ourselves have to be more understanding of the pressures on employees and employers. Scouting is exploring how we can offer more opportunities to volunteer for shorter periods and to arrange training flexibly to help balance family and work commitments. 

But helping employers and Government better recognise the role that volunteering can play in improving skills is essential. By lifting one of the main barriers preventing the growth not only of Scouting but countless voluntary organisations across Britain, we will not only improve the health of our society but also the strength of our national economy.

1 Learning and Training at Work Survey (2000)
2 The Scouts Keeping Britain’s Workforce Ready For Action: Supporting Scouting During The Credit Crunch
3 The Scouts Keeping Britain’s Workforce Ready For Action: Supporting Scouting During The Credit Crunch
4 Informing The Scout Association’s key messages and audience targeting with existing research, collation of existing and external research on the motivations and barriers to volunteering, Desk research report for The Scout Association, Rebecca Molyneux and Patrick Brennan, December 2009
5 Informing The Scout Association’s key messages and audience targeting with existing research, collation of existing and external research on the motivations and barriers to volunteering, Desk research report for The Scout Association, Rebecca Molyneux and Patrick Brennan, December 2009
6 The Scouts Keeping Britain’s Workforce Ready For Action: Supporting Scouting During The Credit Crunch
7 Employer-supported volunteering in the civil service, A review by Baroness Neuberger, the Prime Minister’s Volunteering Champion, July 2009
8 Scouts – Volunteering in the Civil Service- Emerging Talent Group Project – 2008/2009

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