December 1, 2013
“Outsource to Volunteers” were the words inscribed on a floating pendant at Festival for the Future, a weekend event to celebrate what’s possible, “supporting the next generation to spark & grow world-changing ideas for a better New Zealand”.
Now there’s an idea, I thought, and my mind raced away on the potential for community organisations to outsource work and even whole service delivery to volunteers. All I need to do is work up a business plan and organise a few contracts.
After all, hospitals outsource food and cleaning services to private operators; local authorities outsource waste collection services; airlines might have aircraft servicing done outside their country of origin; and we are all familiar with local businesses that outsource the manufacture of their products to way beyond our shores, along with IT services and Call Centres .
How could I make this work for volunteering? It would be a non-profit business for starters. I would recruit and train volunteers, undertake the whole professional management of volunteers, and organisations would contract with me to supply and deliver their volunteer programme. I would make sure a contract price included provision for volunteer rewards and recognition, and also allowances for travel – as well as the costs of administration and training and support and so on – and reasonable recompense for my own efforts. Volunteers do not come for free, you know.
Outsourcing will foster a strong volunteer identity, give volunteers a sense of ownership and pride in their status instead of being reminded of that professional/amateur inequality. Nor would volunteering fall into the black hole of ignorance and being ignored by management in the organisation. Outsourcing could make volunteering more visible in the community rather than being confined to particular organisations. Ultimately volunteering would become an attractive proposition to a wider range of people, and stimulate widespread recognition as well as a broader range of activities. Outsourcing will also give a manager of volunteers the freedom to apply best practice away from the curbs of restrictive organisation processes.
But would it still be ‘volunteering’? Sigh. Such flights of fancy always have fish-hooks. Worst is the inference that volunteers are just another tradable commodity, even if they do not get paid for their work. Market principles do not, should not ever, apply to volunteering. Outsourcing might also expose a shameful concession that volunteer programmes are not part of an organisation’s core business.
My ideas also cut across some of the present work of Volunteer Centres. Many organisations would never dream of letting an outsider take over ‘their’ volunteers. There could be practical objections when it comes to specialised services like emergency services, telephone help-lines and befriending programmes. Some people will protest that outsourcing changes the whole flavour and meaning of volunteering.
But think about it. Think about the words ‘outsource to volunteers’. They do not mean ‘replace paid staff with volunteers’, nor ‘let’s exploit volunteer willingness to help’, and nor do they imply ‘volunteers can do anything’. But they do encourage me to think about extending volunteer responsibilities and developing new initiatives that would add value to organisation services, or to trial new ways of operating.
My realist head is now seeing ‘outsource to volunteers’ as a simple slogan to remind us of the wealth of goodwill, of talents and experience, that volunteers bring to any organisation – and why we should place high value on their services. If we forget that then our organisations and our communities are the poorer for it.