May 17, 2015

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Posted in Best Practice, Celebrations, Civil Society, Impact Measurement, Organisational gains from volunteering, Recognition of Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers tagged , , , , , , at 5:10 am by Sue Hine

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If the value of volunteering remains largely out of sight, it is likely also to remain out of mind.

 

Now there’s a sentence to make me sit up and take notice.  It is a conclusion reached by Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist for the Bank of England in a speech on the social value of volunteering.  (An edited version is available in e-volunteerism issue for January 2015.)

While Haldane laments the “market failure problem” of volunteering he is also offering a coherent account of the importance of measuring not just labour inputs and an arbitrary economic value: we should include the private value to volunteers (health and social well-being), and its social value.  Even economic dummies like me can see what could be achieved if organisations could afford to hire specialists in social cost-benefit analysis.

I have long wrestled with the issues of measuring volunteer impact, especially in the ‘soft’ social service areas like personal support, the buddy programmes and telephone counselling.  “Not everything that counts can be counted” was Einstein’s take.

But it is not just a lack of accounting that contributes to the low profile of volunteering.  Here is my hit-list of factors that indicate a lack of attention to the nature of volunteering and to recognising and appreciating the value of volunteer contributions.

  • There’s the metaphoric symbolism of locating the volunteer office, and the manager’s desk, in the basement or down the end of a long corridor. That could really put volunteers out of sight and out of mind.
  • The lowly status of a manager of volunteers becomes clear in the job title (‘Volunteer’ manager / coordinator) and a pay scale that can be 20% below other managers in the organisation – though the numbers of volunteers could be ten times the number of paid staff. And too often the manager misses out on strategic planning meetings or management training sessions because “you don’t manage staff”.
  • We all know how volunteers do not come for free, yet too often there is no budget allocation for programme costs. Worse are funder contract terms that expect volunteer engagement to contribute to service delivery, while making no allowance for reimbursing volunteer out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Fundraising and marketing offices take precedence in organisation hierarchy these days, and assume that volunteers will be on tap, on time, all the time. Volunteers are a taken-for-granted resource, and the manager is expected to provide the numbers regardless of short notice.
  • When it comes to appreciation, too often the occasions of National Volunteer Week and International Volunteer Day are a brief flare of publicity. Or there’s a raft of awards at local and national levels, and it’s nice to distribute certificates or to host a social gathering for volunteers. But it is rare to get a sense of understanding just what volunteers do and what they have achieved, and why they are ‘so wonderful’ and ‘needed’. Even the organisation’s annual report can leave acknowledging volunteer contributions to a paragraph on the last page.
  • There is much irony in the handwringing that accompanies a funding cut which is then followed by a reduction in services. There is no place for volunteers to pick up responsibilities; it is as though they have been a mere decorative flourish for the organisation. That’s enough to cause the organisation’s founding volunteers to turn in their graves.

If this list is not enough to go on with there is more outrage to be found in the latest Energize Hot Topic.  Or you could start wondering about a UK government pledge to launch a potential 15 million volunteers from the public and corporate sectors for 3 days volunteering per annum.  Note they would be getting paid leave to do so.

In all these examples there is a utilitarian approach to involving volunteers.  Volunteering has become a commodity, a resource to used for what is increasingly perceived as a political, economic and organisational gain while the social and cultural benefits of volunteering and its critical function for a healthy Civil Society are totally ignored.

Before I get run out of town for such dismal views, let me say I know they do not have universal application.  Let me give credit to those organisations who involve volunteers in positive and valued ways, who ‘understand’ the nature of volunteering.  And then I ask, why can’t others learn from these best practice examples?

Having said all this just offers reinforced support for getting momentum on measuring the true economic, private and social value of volunteering. In New Zealand we can apply the Best Practice Guidelines for Volunteer-Involving Organisations.  Volunteering Australia launched this week its updated National Standards for Volunteer Involvement. Both documents offer the essentials of good practice and an audit tool to illustrate performance.  The publication of The Economic, Social and Cultural Value of Volunteering to Tasmania is another example of efforts being made to calculate the full extent of volunteering contributions.

These are small steps to measuring the scale of volunteering, and a start to taking giant leaps to make volunteering visible and a ‘market success’.

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