Volunteering in the Age of Austerity

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By Laura77 on
Big Society, everything volunteering, ttvolmgrs and volunteer management 672 views 0 likes 8 comments

What I want to explore today is how the nature of volunteer involvement and the role of volunteer managers is changing in the context of economic downturn.

My name's Laura and I manage volunteers for George House Trust, a medium sized HIV charity in the North West. Over the last 3 years we've been fearing - and feeling - the impact of cuts to the sector. In 2010-11 we experienced a 20% reduction in statutory funding. We're not alone. The Charity Commission reported the loss of 1600 registered charities in 2010-11, whilst charitable donations are now worth £900 million less in real terms than the amount given four years earlier (UK Giving 2011). Meanwhile, NCVO estimates the sector will lose more than a billion pounds in public funding per year over the next four years. They suggest the impact of this will be felt most in areas of higher deprivation.

In the last decade, the UK voluntary sector's paid workforce increased by a staggering 40%. At the same time, volunteer numbers have remained fairly static. NCVO found that 57% of paid staff in the sector were in health and social care organisations. What this says to me is that most organisations have grown their frontline service provision through paid staff recruitment, rather than volunteer involvement. I think this leaves a vulnerable legacy, as organisations no longer have the same income level for paid staff, face increased demand on services and potentially lack experience of volunteer involvement and management.

I could go on (and on!) painting a picture of doom and I'm sure that many of you will have already directly experienced the impact of cuts on organisations and services in your area. But today I’m asking if - and how – volunteer involvement and volunteer management is changing, in response to the age of austerity. There are clear links to some of the recent debates about job substitution, and the tax on philanthropic giving here on i-volunteer and I'm interested to hear other volunteer managers’ experiences, during financially difficult times.

The last two years have been among the most mixed and challenging of my career. There's been increased workload, ongoing uncertainty, departure of valued colleagues and a rapidly changing external environment to contend with. But at the same time there has been an incredibly positive organisational response in terms of volunteering. Volunteers are viewed as central to how our organisation survives, and thrives during the recession and this has shifted the way that paid staff and volunteers work together and the variety of roles that volunteers are involved in.

One of the new roles we have introduced at George House Trust involves training and matching an “advice support volunteer” to each paid services adviser within our frontline team. A key task that these volunteers help with is writing financial applications for HIV positive people living in poverty. The result: a £32,000 increase in the amount of respite and hardship grants for individuals from external agencies. The volunteers themselves have been able to complete an NVQ in Advice & Guidance; greatly improving their skills and employability.

Another project has trained volunteers as peer researchers. Volunteers conduct one to one interviews with service users and help us capture personal outcomes experienced, as a result of accessing our services. Over the next 12 months we hope to build an outcomes evidence base for the support we provide to people living with HIV. We’ve also involved more specialist volunteers this year; undertaking a major re-branding and website re-design project and creating an e-learning system. We’ve developed an intensive summer volunteering placement in event organisation and worked with an employer supported volunteer programme to purchase and pack food parcels for those most in need.

It's been hard work and has involved much more collaborative working across the organisation, and a greater allocation of frontline service staff's time to volunteer management. We’ve had to invest time in consulting and involving staff in planning new volunteer roles and provided more intensive training in volunteer management. We're also having to make changes to how we advertise and fill opportunities and are trying to be more realistic about the length of time we can retain volunteers for. An ongoing challenge is how we can make the best possible use of volunteer skills and talents and tap the energy of those who want very short term involvement, without additional volunteer management capacity. These are areas where we still have work to do.

As I say, the organisations we work for are facing extremely challenging times. I think volunteer managers have a crucial role to play in shaping the future and ensuring the survival of organisations and services. In the age of austerity, we can't afford to stand still and watch from the sidelines.

So here are my three questions for volunteer managers:

  • is volunteer involvement and management viewed as a priority by your organisation, during tough times? 
  • how has your role as a volunteer manager changed since the economic downturn began to bite?
  • has your organisation started to involve volunteers in new ways, in response to diminished and diminishing financial resources?

You can share your thoughts by posting a comment, or tweet using the hashtag #ttvolmgrs

Looking forward to hearing your views and experiences!

To read recent writing related to this issue try:

Sue Hine on the changing volunteering landscape

Rob Jackson's writing on job substitution and giving time 

Uncollective Consciousness's thoughts on giving

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Top answer

Thanks for the mention Laura. I don't think I am into conspiracy theory, but heck - the intervention of government in charity giving / legislation and policy; in entertaining 'social investment' and adding 'social' to any of those words more familiar to bankers and finance directors; in discussion papers lodged on government websites on everything relating to 'social enterprise' - all these indicate change is being imposed, on volunteering and on the management of volunteers. Over-dramatic? Maybe - but we have been through such change before, if you remember the start of government contracting out services 30-odd years ago. And before that we were all volunteers round a kitchen table working out what we wanted to do, for what we thought was right within our communities.

The really important thing is getting to know how we (volunteers and managers) can take advantage of what is in the wind.

Once again there have been some valuable examples and reflections shared. Thank you everyone who participated and to those of you who are just discovering Thoughtful Thursdays and haven't quite taken that next step to contribute - please do share your thoughts with us. It's been great to see some new and different people joining this tweetchat and we want to encourage even more of you to take part.

As always, the expanded comments here are so useful, as are the soundbites that come through in the tweets. A summary of these for this week can be found here: bit.ly/LoX4Iz

Didn't expect it to be so late before I got to contribute to this, so here goes with my thoughts before bedtime! Admittedly, I come to this with a slightly naive aspect of my current organisation as I've only been there a month and a bit, but a lot of the points you raise are quite noticeable in the wider sector, and are picked up through colleagues and networks.

I work for an organisation that involves around 15,000 volunteers. In my particular section of the organisation, we've seen a 70% increase in volunteer numbers and a 56% increase in volunteer hours over the past two years. Volunteering is definitely expanding, and has got more paid staff in over that time to help develop it.

When we break down the statistics, the huge increases come in youth volunteering, and particularly people coming through on schemes that we have set up with training providers, Job Centre Plus and vocational colleges. In certain areas, some of our volunteer teams have the majority of people on them coming through placement schemes such as these, whereas 5 years ago, there would have only been a small number across the country.

This does pose a challenge to some more longstanding members of staff, who are very well acquainted with the general type of volunteer that we had 5 years ago, and are sometimes a bit resistant to change. That creates a challenge in my coordinating role as we look at ways of how to manage more diverse groups of volunteers from different backgrounds and with different expectations, and then supporting the volunteer managers to achieve this. Which is one of the things I love about my job :-)

Whilst I can't say how my role in my current job as changed, I feel that as a volunteer manager (and maybe it's just been in the organisations that I work in), there has been a shift towards gaining a different demographic of volunteers with different aims of what they want to achieve from volunteering and this of course alters how we do our work. But while we gain these, we also still have the other volunteers, and thus need to find the right balance.

I'll leave it at that as it's late and it'll stop me waffling on any more, but thanks so much for the blog post, Laura - really got me thinking and it even played a part in a conversation I had with one of my longstanding volunteer managers today:-)


Hi Addam, thanks for your thoughts! That's a huge increase in volunteers and interesting to hear about the change of demographic too, which is something that seemed to be coming up as a theme in the twitter discussion. Also good that your organisation is investing in volunteer management at a time when you're increasing volunteer involvement. Really glad that you found it useful reading! Be interested to chat more when I see you on the 4th. Laura

Thanks Laura for sharing your experiences - they're really interesting ideas that are really practical and constructive responses to the current situation we all find ourselves in. Plenty of food for thought here.

I've tried to write up some of my thoughts her on ivo on how the current economic climate in the UK is affecting the development of volunteering: ivo.org/paddaniels/posts

I remember this was one of the subjects we discussed at the last Association of Volunteer Managers' conference- many people shared their experiences of how things were changing in the volunteering sector in the last year or so. A key fear was how it was starting to impact of people's perceptions of their potential career path and status. There was also a worry that volunteer management becomes increasingly seen as a add on to other job roles as services are slimmed down.


Hi Pad, thanks for commenting - it's interesting to hear about how the downturn is impacting on volunteer managers' roles. I think people having to juggle an increasing range of responsibilities is probably a theme within many organisations at the moment. I feel strongly that volunteer management should be seen as a valid (and long term!) career path although as I said in my blog, I do think the role has to evolve and change to reflect the changing climate too. I'd be interested to hear more about how AVM are working on this issue and supporting volunteer managers going forward. I'll take a look at your post too! Thanks! Laura

As a manager at a charity that raises a large chunk of its funds from its furniture re-use business, we have had to recruit more volunteers than ever and use effective training methods to help us raise more money to counterbalance the reduction in general donor funding.

We find ourselves continually in a vicious circle - The less money we have available for our volunteering project from funding -> the more we need to make using our volunteers -> the more volunteers we need -> the more money we need for the volunteering project and so on and so on.

As a benefit of this, we are finding the more our volunteers are stretched, the more we realise how capable they can be. Necessity can force people to leave their comfort zone and deal with situations they might not have considered themselves capable of. Particularly when working with the long-term unemployed and those with learning difficulties, this can be a very valuable experience. However it is not all positive and the 'stretch' has also driven some people away. The tighter money gets, the lower the staff to volunteer ratio gets - this causes problems with supervision, guidance and development, and most of our volunteers require lots of contact time to feel comfortable in their role.

So essentially, the downturn has brought many challenges, but there are opportunities to be had too. But ultimately I feel the biggest challenges are faced by those trying to deliver improved service, standards and efficiency with much less resources. The never ending curse of the VM!


Thanks for your comment. As I said on twitter, I can definitely relate to the feeling of being stretched both in terms of funding, volunteer management and volunteer capacity! One of the things that we discussed at a recent staff planning morning was trying to make sure that we don't become over dependent on certain volunteers and risk burning them out. I think in tighter times it can be tempting to rely heavily on those volunteers who are highly motivated and self-managing and forget that they still need support! I also agree that the downturn is a mix of challenges but also opportunities, (albeit with less resources with which to pursue them). For me, it's about making sure that as volunteer managers we work to help our organisations involve volunteers as effectively as possible and recognise what a valuable resource they are! Laura