The end of the volunteering sector as we know it?

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By SpotLight on
volunteer centres and volunteer management 728 views 0 likes 9 comments

The big news of the week is that the nation’s leading volunteering development body, Volunteering England (VE), is to merge with the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).

VE was formed in 2004 following the merger of the then national association of Volunteer Bureaux (Volunteer Development England), the National Centre for Volunteering and the grant funder for health volunteering, the Consortium on Opportunities for Volunteering. Student Volunteering England was taken over by the new organisation soon afterwards, resulting in a large and comprehensive volunteering infrastructure body, the likes of which had never been seen before in this country.

When VE was formed there was high hope and aspiration for the new body. Volunteering was big business under the last government, with large amounts of funding being made available, and the arrival of a new body with the muscle to both represent and develop what had been viewed by many as a disparate and wooly sector, was an important step forwards. The Volunteer Centre network, grossly under valued by too many for too long, had finally found a body that would ensure they would start to receive the recognition they so badly needed and deserved.

VE has had some critics over the years but generally there has been a clear sense that volunteering has been well represented overall and that through VE it had a strong national sectoral identity that was being seen and heard by the right people, especially in government.  

When the Coalition arrived in 2010 there was much talk about volunteering as being integral to the success of David Cameron’s Big Society initiative and initially there were high hopes for the sector. But as the reality of the economic climate hit home it quickly became apparent that despite the need for more volunteers than ever before, government was not able or prepared to continue funding infrastructure at its previous level.

In 2010 the Coalition announced that it would no longer be funding its voluntary sector strategic partners as it had done previously. Many of these were volunteering bodes, including TimeBank, Youth Action Network and do-it. Some fell out of favour in the first round of cuts, and others, along with VE were given notice that the good times would come to an end in three years.

Whilst VE has worked extremely hard to reduce costs and raise new funding, it was perhaps inevitable that time would eventually be called on their ability to survive as an independent charity. There had been rumours of potential mergers with a number of other bodies, including the National Association of Councils for Voluntary Action (NAVCA) whom many saw as a natural fit given that well over half the country’s Volunteer Centre’s are hosted within a CVS, but ultimately NCVO proved to be most attractive partner. 

Time will tell if the marriage between the two is happily consummated. NCVO, led by Sir Stuart Etherington, is the largest and most vocal infrastructure body in the country and has an impressive track record of representing voluntary and community action. There will no doubt be some some friction as both agencies get used to each other’s company, though their co-habitation of the same building for a number of years should help the transition. But what is clear is that England will no longer have an independent leader of the volunteering sector. And without such a leader it's just a matter of time before the volunteering sector as we know it disappears. 

Is this such a bad thing? For a fiercely independent sector like ours perhaps it is. But given volunteering’s rapid, and some would say overdue, evolution since 2010 into what is increasingly being seen as civil society and informal social action, setting up home with the country’s leading civil society charity may well turn out to be a good move, provided NCVO can ensure that the core values of volunteering are not lost. 

The funding climate out there is perilous at best and infrastructure is often seen as something that can be all too easily cut. Mergers may well turn out to be the only way to ensure that volunteering and voluntary action infrastructure is able to survive. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before NAVCA, ACEVO (the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations) and others follow the courageous example set by Volunteering England.

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Top answer

As someone who works for an independent charity that supports, trains and brokers volunteers along with providing network and development support for community and voluntary sector organisations it would be supposed that I might find this to be big news but the fact is that I would be hard pushed to say that either of these organisations has any direct impact on our work or on the experiences of the 3500+ volunteers that we work with every year. If you tell me that they are up in London fighting our corner I'll believe you but I still couldn't tell you what benefit we get from this. Similarly, if asked I couldn't tell you the difference between them, what they actually do day to day or even why there are two different organisations in the first place. They shouldn't feel singled out that I don't know what the difference is between them because I couldn't tell you the difference between them and NAVCA either.

It was very clear from the Transforming Local Infrastructure initiative that the government wanted volunteer centres and CVS bureaux to look to more localised frameworks for support and that is certainly what is happening in our local authority area with the four volunteer centres forming an infrastructure partnership with three independent voluntary sector support organisations who have nothing to do with Volunteering England nor (in the case of two of the organisations) with NCVO. If this is being replicated across the country it was never going to be long before the sector started to question the purpose of a national body that was ceasing to have any real impact on a local level.

It seems to me that this merger is a step in the right direction, fewer national bodies taking their slice of the whatever resources there might be in the sector and more local partnerships making the best use of the resources that remain has to be a good thing, after all isn't that what big society is all about? So maybe the next question that needs to be asked isn't 'should NCVO and NAVCA be the next to merge' but rather 'does the sector need NCVO or NAVCA at all'?


The debate about the value of infrastructure bodies is a wider one (and more about political ideology that anything else), but I think that to reduce to role of VE (or NCVO, or NAVCA, or AVM) to asking 'what do they do day-to-day?' is too simplistic. I believe their roles aren't to be a highly visible or to have a hand in every volunteer-involving organisation, but to be the backdrop to every big decision, budget or policy that has the potential to affect volunteering and volunteers. To me, the danger of merging the aim/vision of NCVO with that of VE is akin to an organisation putting volunteer management duties with the HR Officer to save money on a volunteer coordinator: there are similar themes, but it's the nuances and intangibles that set them apart and make them distinct.

I am resisting commenting directly on this situation but I will say that WCVA already encompasses 'volunteering' in Wales, as the prospective new NCVO is likely to do in England. We have staff who are specifically dedicated to volunteering and we have embedded it as a cross cutting theme across the organisation. We also work extremely closely with Volunteer Centres throughout Wales, sometimes on jointly funded projects - the former DWP Volunteering Programme being one and the new BIG funded Wales Volunteering work being another.
I hope that the deliberations between VE and NCVO will not be too difficult and that volunteering will thrive as a result of decisions made. I am certainly thinking of my friends and colleagues in England in these times of change.
Good luck!

Jamie Ward-Smith

Interestingly, having studied the history, it looks like it's gone full circle. NCVO (or the NCSS as it was in the early 70s) worked on the commission that led to the set up of Volunteer Centre UK (now VE) and then a few years later started the national development process for what is now the Volunteer Centre network, before handing it over to to the Volunteer Centre UK. They in turn saw the VC network create its own national body before it came back under the new VE charity in 2004 - and now they are all going back to NCVO!


Not sure if this is good or bad news...perhaps time will tell? I guess it largely depends on what you think is behind the decision...informed wisdom i.e.volunteering being better represented in a larger, more 'powerful' organisation, NVCO having a good track record in dialogue with Government etc...or, political expediency i.e. cuts, a case of merge or disappear anway, for VE?

I do think it looks precarious for volunteer centres. My own view is that while they may have six core functions, they basically do two things - help people volunteer and help organisations work with volunteers. After some ten years and a bit, I think VE have finally honed the VCQA so it accurately reflects what I think most people that I have met in the volunteering sector, think that a VC does and should do - if that were to be replaced by (presumably wider) NAVCA, or other quality standards I am not sure where that leaves volunteer centres?

Just what would staff with specific responsibilities for volunteer brokerage and assisting voluntary groups with good practice in volunteer management , all working within a independent volunteer centre do?

Well, the brokerage could be picked up by YouthNet via Do-It (and quite why volunteer centres are still involved, or allowed to still be involved with Do-It, I don't know?! - it takes VC's a lot of time to process applications and potential volunteers using it online have to wait 4 working days, or whatever it is, rather than getting the contact details of the organisation they want to volunteer with straightaway ONLINE - explain that in terms of customer service anyone?!) , or as it is now, by the groups themselves and advice on volunteer management could be catered for by small groups, or community development workers employed by the council for voluntary service.

For the firing-on-all-six-core-functions, accredited (independent) volunteer centre, I don't really see what's left? Perhaps their only remaining specialism is what I have been feeling for some time - effectively supported volunteering - seeing people face-to-face, investing in spending time with people who need real help to get into volunteering, people who wouldn't do it otherwise - and who in a truly substantiated way across a network of volunteer centres, is going to fund that?

While I really liked for example, Westminister VC's shop front, if there is no discernable national body whose role is to, among other things, accredit the work volunteer centres do, or a ('new)national body using a wider, less specialised set of accredited functions that are applicable to VC's, then surely you don't need the volunteer centre in any other format than a couple of desks in the corner of a CVS, for staff employed with 'volunteering' as their brief?

Ten years ago, NAVB merged with the National Centre for Volunteering and we collectively penned documents about 'Building on Success'. Within the VC network there were, I think fears about less volunteer centres etc.

I just wonder if a (almost) bi-product of this merger might signal them disappearing altogether

Jamie Ward-Smith

All good points Lee. I think VE will retain much of its work, including their brand, within NCVO so hopefully this won't all disappear. But it will be interesting to see if VCs stay, or if they migrate to NACVS or even consider setting up their own association again. Time will tell I guess...

Your comment about do-it is interesting. Here on ivo brokers like VCs can link volunteers directly with organisations they help, whilst still retaining an overview of matches made - feel free to chat to Brighton and Hove VC who use ivo a lot to get a sense of how it works for them.


I should probably reititerate that I comment in a personal capacity on here! I am still employed by a VC and my user-name may give a clue as to which one - they are quite tolerant and fair-minded to be fair though!

Just taking up my comment about VC's relationship to Do-It and expanding it a bit...

I have long-felt that other than for the purposes of getting a 'hit' i.e. bolstering their stats and for the historical ways in which it evolved, their is perhaps little justification, or reasoning for VC's to remain involved with processing Do-It applications, or enquiries.

I strongly believe that volunteer centres would be better placed focusing on where their skills do, or should lie - helping face-to-face.

In the sixteen (yes, I know!) years that I have worked in volunteer centres there has been a real shift in the way in which people who do use volunteer centres enquire. Back in the mid 90's people were content to wait 2-3 weeks for an appointment, but here and now, fuelled with messages from job centres and employment agencies that 'volunteering will get you back into work' people call and want an appointment that same day and a great deal of the skills involved in faciltating effective brokerage appointments revolves around helping people to adjust their expectations to realistic levels and assisting them to find the appropriate opportunity that might just give them a good grounding to get into a line of work (hopefully) of their own choosing.

Another huge part of offering a good brokerage service, is in my view about responding with care and time to people who are in need of support. Adequately funded supported volunteering schemes are important and provide much needed support to volunteers with what we like to term 'additional', or 'extra' support needs, but I think the majority of people seen in volunteer centres have (if you will) additional support needs, including many people who contact VC's via the routes mentioned above. People who frankly, are deemed by employers to be so far outside the labour market, that they might be more scared,concerned and lacking in confidence than they already are if they really knew how 'unemployable' they are often regarded as. I run a monthly workshop in Eastbourne which promotes volunteering to and for unemployed people and my key message is always about trying to encourage people to volunteer for something they want to do,if indeed they want to - not to choose something because they think it's worthy, or someone told them they might lose their benefit if they don't volunteer.

I just think that if volunteer centres are going to have to fight for their continued exsitence (many will feel that they have always had to do that), then specialising in skilled face-to-face brokerage and monitoring and evaluating its impact by conducting proper, thorough follow up, will arm VC's more adequately than wading through countless on-line enquiries (sometimes as many as ten, or twenty from an individual that perhaps suggests what they really need is some face-to-face guidance!) that could be processed centrally, quite possibly by YouthNet themselves?

Thanks for your tip Jamie about how Brighton & Hove have utlised IVO to change their way of working...I'll certainly be interested to learn more.


Great post there Lee.

I go back to the mid 80's with volunteer bureau involvement and can recall how the Nat Vol Centre and NAVBx always created some kind of public confusion about where someone went to find out more about v-world.

Do-It was a good idea, made information accessible to many of us online. It's downfall wasn't the database or the website but who used it, as I can recall it being sifted by employment programme contract holders, sending in clients undercover of being an individual wanting to volunteer.

As volunteering or those activities deemed to sound and look like it, have been developed and politicised more and more, so the core of what volunteering is has changed. When the last government changed focus onto volunteering in a big way, it also redrew the lines at the same time. You had a pro-vol government but a state run employment allowance system telling you you couldn't volunteer for more than 16 hours even though that had been abolished long since as a condition. Madness!

The fact we're talking about VE and NCVO merging continues this trend and change, mergers aren't always for the better - at any merger's core it is really about hard cash and usually less of it.

Having more people sharing the same office space doesn't mean the quality of the work or your representation always improves, especially if, for some years, you've existed without their even knowing you're there.