David Cameron’s pledge to create a “Big Society” of empowered volunteers and vibrant communities generated some of the positive headlines that helped his Conservative party scrape to victory in 2010.
With the UK again in election mode, the role of its large charitable and voluntary sector in stepping up when the state falls away is set to be debated afresh.
From school governors and youth sports coaches to the well-spoken retirees that staff National Trust properties, the British were a nation of volunteers long before Mr Cameron coined the Big Society. Nearly 30 per cent of UK adults formally offer their services for nothing (through a group, club or organisation) at least once a month, according to the 2013 Citizenship Survey.
Moreover, the roughly 20m volunteers working within the charitable sector dwarf its paid workforce of about 750,000, making effective volunteer recruitment and management critical to many important organisations.
Professionals have been among those to respond to the prime minister’s call to arms, but even these well briefed individuals are frequently surprised at the complexities of working with and within an unpaid workforce.
Newcomers Julie Hopes, chief executive of The Conservation Volunteers (see below), and Caroline Davis, a former City lawyer who volunteers at a local hospice, both use the word “shocked”.
“You think of how fabulous it is to have people’s time,” says Ms Hopes. “It is easy to miss all the costs and the infrastructure that is needed.”
Ms Davis, who began visiting terminally ill people under a “hospice in the home” programme last year, finds herself amazed at the inefficiencies that arise from box-ticking and bureaucracy, and at how time-poor managers are.
While more people want to contribute time and skills, ways of volunteering and motivations are changing, says Lynne Berry, a former chief executive of the Charity Commission. People are living longer and retiring later.
More people of all ages are travelling, studying and juggling part-time work and caring responsibilities. More of them want to use their professional skills rather than just help out. “Volunteers want more flexibility,” says Ms Berry. “Managing volunteers is becoming more skilled,” .
Having 20 volunteers each working one two-hour shift a week is considerably more difficult and expensive to manage than hiring one full-time paid staff member: “It is the volunteer manager who has the Rubik’s cube and has to work it all out,” she says.
But volunteers bring things that money cannot buy: “[They] are incredibly committed and passionate, and give incredible amounts of time to incredibly difficult roles,” says Debbie Kerslake, chief executive of Cruse Bereavement Care, the counselling charity.
Their leaders “can’t say thank-you too often” and have a duty to ensure volunteers are well supported and trained, she says. Before becoming Cruse counsellors, volunteers are put through 16 three-hour modules, a significant upfront cost.
As at many charities, Cruse’s 6,000 or so volunteers deliver front line services, in its case going into people’s homes at a time of great distress.
As such, they are central to reputation management. At their best, volunteers are ambassadors connecting organisations to their communities; at their worst they can inflict considerable damage.
“It is paramount they deliver outcomes. You need that clarity of purpose. This can create tensions,” says Ms Berry, whose current commitments include chairing a commission on the voluntary sector and ageing.
She adds that a proper description of the volunteer role, how it might change, and clear lines of reporting are good starting points.
A subtle approach is also important, says Helen Timbrell, director of volunteering and community involvement at the National Trust.
The trust works with more than 70,000 volunteers a year. Although it reviews volunteers’ performance, it shies away from using the term “appraisal”.
“You need to find a tone and language that reflects the gifting relationship,” she says. “It is always about mutual benefit.”
Another trend is “micro-volunteering”. In this case, individuals donate a day or other short periods of time rather than make a continuing commitment, says Kristen Stephenson, volunteer management and good practice manager at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the umbrella organisation.
Cruse, for example, has set up “Cruse at Christmas”, whereby it recruits volunteers to help vulnerable people during the holiday period.
Many organisations are trying to improve the diversity within their volunteering body, adds Ms Stephenson.
With greater diversity, however, can come greater challenges. Richard Mehmed leads a Brighton-based national community wood recycling network, the aims of which include providing work experience and employment for ex-offenders and others who find it hard to find jobs.
“The volunteers are part of a team. There is the utmost respect but there is also discipline and a hierarchy. Inappropriate behaviour is not tolerated,” he says.
The complexities inherent in working with volunteers can help to create good leaders.
Ms Berry believes “third-sector” leaders deserve much more recognition than they get.
“[They’ve] got to be very sophisticated managers,” she maintains. “There is a lot that the corporate world can learn from them.”
A bigger plan: Emphasis is on sharpening leadership skills
Like many good things, Kevin Hughes’s involvement with The Conservation Volunteers – the environmental charity, whose mission is to preserve and reclaim green spaces for local communities – evolved from a conversation in a pub.
The executive coach had been high on the list of people that Julie Hopes, the new chief executive of the then-troubled charity, wanted to get in touch with again. They had met years earlier when Ms Hopes worked in the City.
Her pitch succeeded and Mr Hughes has run a leadership development “awayday” for TCV and mentors its finance director.
Mr Hughes is one of 10 high-level volunteers that Ms Hopes has mobilised. Others are working on marketing, strategy and retail. Almost all have come from the 46-year-old former insurance executive’s personal network.
They are either people she knew herself or “friends of friends of friends”, a common way of operating in the cash-strapped but collegial third sector.
Hit by government funding cuts, Ms Hopes has made it a priority to sharpen the leadership skills of her management team.
An early move was to create a executive-level position – director of people and change – to lead human resources. She thought that it was important to use the word “people” to encapsulate TCV’s paid and volunteer workforce, which is among the sector’s largest and most complex.
TCV works directly with about 115,000 volunteers a year. Many are “part of a bigger plan”: they are people referred to TCV by GPs, Mind, the mental health charity, and local authorities. Working with TVC helps the volunteers with health and other problems, such as long-term unemployment.
“There are fewer and fewer ‘pure’ volunteering groups,” she says. “It is a lot more complex when you are dealing with people with health issues.”
Volunteering is “a great way to develop leadership skills”, she adds.