By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
I have just returned from a few weeks of work in the United Kingdom, a place I am lucky enough to have been able to visit annually for most of the last decade.
It was here, twelve months ago, I first came to understand that the impending global financial crisis, was in fact the real deal. Each and every day the headlines were emblazoned with news that another company had shut down, or another few hundred people were out of work. Sadly, returning a year later, the news has not changed all that much at all.
As an Australian, I’ve been somewhat spared from the ravishes of this international crisis, as the decision of the Rudd Government to dole out vast amounts of money to every Australian and create a spending frenzy to stimulate the economy appears to have largely been effective. Like the UK however, North America and most of the rest of the world has not escaped in such a fashion.
When thinking about the impact of the recession on the state of volunteering, a few things have become evident to me.
First up, all indicators would suggest that there are more and more people looking to volunteer as they lose their jobs or seek to improve the range of skills they can offer to potential employers.
An online survey by the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) in the UK indicated that 78% of respondents had experienced more people applying to become a volunteer in recent times.This was also reinforced to me recently in New Zealand, when I sent to a Volunteer Centre my standard ‘blurb’ to promote one of my regular workshops. This descriptor, which I have been using for a few years now, began with something like “Attracting a suitable number of volunteers is one of the biggest concerns for many volunteer programs”. I was promptly reminded by my client that in actual fact, attractive adequate numbers of potential volunteers wasn’t such an issue in recent times. The bigger issues now were how to effectively utilise the skills those people were bringing.
The volunteering world certainly has changed considerably in quite a short time!
So allow me to ruminate for a bit on three associated topics.
To begin with, what has been the impact of this change on the voluntary sector? Has ‘more volunteers’ meant better quality volunteering? And indeed, were or are we even equipped to deal with the influx of new – and often more highly skilled volunteers?
The short answer for many agencies at least, appears to be a resounding no. Anecdotally, I’ve heard a number of Volunteer Centre Managers tell me that many of the volunteers they have sent to volunteer involving agencies, have returned somewhat disillusioned by the whole process, as agencies fail to create meaningful volunteering opportunities or simply struggle to deal with the extra work load this increase in volunteers brings.
Research conducted by John Hopkins University earlier this year found that 37% of the agencies they surveyed indicated an increase in the number of volunteers they were dealing with, while 39% reported an increase in the number of hours being contributed by volunteers. Interestingly, the same survey reported that only 15% of organisations indicated an increased ability to manage those extra volunteers.
And here’s the point. In an economically depleted environment, more people will be out of paid employment. Those people will seek volunteering as an interim measure to fill the gap which therefore increases the pressure faced by volunteer involving organisations, many of which are already themselves understaffed and under-resourced. At the same time, the fact that more people are ‘doing it tough’ directly places a greater need on the services which are provided by many charities and volunteer agencies. We are expected to increase the capacity of our agencies to provide more shelter or food relief packages or financial counselling. It’s a vicious cycle, which at its core means more volunteers are needed, which in turn falls on those of us who lead volunteers to have to deal with this extra workload.
And how do we as a sector respond? Well I’d hypothesise that we do what we always do – we pull our socks up and get on with it. We find ways to deal with the extra workload. We creatively stretch our budgets even further. We develop a never-say-die attitude, put on a brave face, and prove that the volunteer department is worth its weight in gold!
Now while these traits are all well and good, I wonder if this is in fact the right approach?
Surely proving that we can do even more with even less only goes to reinforce to our CEO’s, boards and funders that volunteers and volunteering does not need adequate resources, staffing numbers, office space or budgets. Perhaps now is the time to grab hold of the opportunity that these extra volunteers and the requirement for expanded services bring and become a little more political about making the case for additional resourcing?
Let’s face it, no other profession on earth would gladly accept a significant growth in workload without properly planning and resourcing the project.
What I am really asking is what is the legacy which we, as Volunteer Managers are going to gain from this process and are we maximising the opportunity which this rare window avails to us?
I’d really love to hear your thoughts and experiences.
Finally, the other thought I have been having relates to the question of just what happens when the economy begins to improve again, which will inevitably happen?
One argument is that in the same way more services and volunteers are required in times of hardship, that the opposite will be true. That is, people will find work again and quit their volunteering, less people will be available to volunteer and less services will be required by the general public, also leading to a lessening of the requirement for additional volunteers.
This may in fact be true, however for me it also reinforces the need for sound volunteer management practices and personnel to be in place to deal with these swings and roundabouts as they appear, but secondly the idea of simply ‘riding out the wave’ is an irresponsible one which again does not seek to take advantage of the unique place in which we currently find ourselves.
Way back in 2000, the UK Department of Education and Skills released a report titled ‘Links between Volunteering and Employability’ which examined some of the work ready skills volunteers gain from volunteering opportunities. Perhaps the most telling statistic to come from that report relates to the percentage of volunteers who actually quit their volunteering role on securing paid employment.
The report found that “On moving into employment one third of volunteers had continued with their volunteering activity as before, with a further one in six continuing in a reduced capacity. And given that two fifths of the sample had already stopped volunteering before taking up employment, only 6% actually discontinued on the point of entry into employment”
While it is difficult to fathom at this point, there has also been some research conducted in Australia which suggests that in the not-too-distant future we may not have enough paid employees to undertake all of the planned infrastructure projects and other requirements to effectively run our country. If true, this may also have a corresponding and perhaps severe impact on the number of available people wishing to volunteer, and so it stands to reason we should be finding ways to engage with new volunteers now, and retain as many of them for the long haul as we can once the economic downturn is over.
OK so over to all of you.
- What do you think – are we too passive and missing a golden opportunity to advocate for greater levels of resources?
- Should we be ‘using’ the economic downturn to our advantage or should we simply shut and take what we are given?
- What is the impact of this discussion on groups like Volunteer Centres?
- Do you have an personal experiences about volunteering in these hard economic times?
- Have you implemented any innovative measures in your own program?