Volunteering and equality / 4 February 2013
I have a friend who used to volunteer with a local arts organisation, but has now stopped as he fears that if he continues to do so he may lose his benefits. The explanation for this being that if he is able to volunteer he may be deemed fit to work, despite being able to take time off when he needs it in his voluntary position, which wouldn’t be possible in paid employment.
As a relatively new member of staff I have had this in mind when carrying out an aspect of my role, recruiting and managing volunteers. I want to ensure that the voluntary roles we offer are of value but am also unsure how to navigate the variety of needs, vulnerabilities, strengths and expectations people may have when they offer their time to help us. In their first meeting with us, a prospective volunteer can understandably come across as extremely capable, flexible and willing to do any task we may need help with. This first conversation may be a good time to clarify what the volunteer might and might not feel comfortable doing and if any assistance could be given to aid them in carrying out particular tasks. I am aware however that this conversation may throw up fairly personal details that may be difficult to disclose so early on in the relationship. It also might be difficult for the volunteer to identify what they are happy or capable of doing.
The purpose of voluntary work should ideally be mutually beneficial, to the organisation and the individual. The advantage of volunteering, as opposed to paid work, is the built-in flexibility, allowing a person to take time off or go at their own pace, but also to try things out, push themselves and develop skills in a supportive environment. If not entirely successful, the consequences are less significant. Yet for me building this flexibility in has proved more challenging than first expected. It takes time to get to know people, the way they work best, what they find rewarding and what they find difficult. I am also trying to develop my ability to read and respond to these things in the way I manage volunteers’ workloads.
On a practical level, is it better to approach the relationships I develop with volunteers with an open and responsive outlook, looking to create a bespoke role that meets the needs of the individual? Or would it be of greater benefit to both parties to be almost less personal, ask the same of all volunteers and require them to let us know if there will be any issues with that? This may be less judgmental and patronising, but could let certain things go unnoticed and foster a less positive experience for both of us.
The individual circumstances of my friend who stopped volunteering may have not been taken into account but of course more time and resources would be required to do this. In my view it is always better to try to acknowledge the subtleties of the individual circumstance. The recent changes to the welfare system seem to me to have been detrimental to the culture of volunteering. I wonder if it has contributed to people’s reluctance to talk about their personal situation, what they need help with and what they want to achieve. If so this would surely feed on itself, possibly create further suspicion and fear of being misunderstood. By extension could this reduce the number of successful voluntary placements that do genuinely lead to paid employment or, more importantly, mutually beneficial contributions?