Mandatory work placements weaken our community sector. Volunteer managers should keep sight of our definition of volunteering, and be honest about what it’s not.
In the training I do, discussion can arise when we’re looking at volunteer motivations. “Why DO people get involved in the first place…?” is a question I ask a lot. We play bingo with volunteer motivations, we look at research, we tell stories of ours and others’ experiences, we unpick what it is that makes people get involved and we look at how understanding this is the key to getting the best for everyone out of volunteering.
More often than I’d hope, people’s responses include… “because they’ve been sent… because they’ve been told to”. This is tricky. A big reason why people get involved in something is because they’ve been asked, or even had their arm twisted into it by a persuasive friend.
How is this different to being told to volunteer by a stranger? Possibly a stranger threatening that you’ll also lose the state benefit you’re entitled to?
Volunteering. Spending time, “unpaid, doing something which aims to benefit someone…other than or in addition to close relatives, or to benefit the environment.” This definition is from a national survey in 1997 and is very similar to both the Police Act and Jobseekers’ Regulations’ definitions. Many would go further, adding that it needs to be independently chosen and mutually beneficial (Greater London Volunteering). Voluntary.
We sometimes lose sight of the reasons people find themselves at the door of an organisation. Maybe because we need their help, maybe because we know that the experience once through the door is a brilliant one and we think it’s worth the coercion. (Read YMCA’s compelling argument here.) But whatever we call it, defining voluntary activity and how people choose to get involved is important so as not to lose sight of what it achieves.
It is the act of choosing to get involved and sticking to it that is the transformative thing, not the simple turning up. Cajoling, motivating, nudging you to go, hearing about your first experience, encouraging you into the second visit, you getting round to it in your own time… all of these things happen from persuasive and well-meaning colleagues, support workers, friends but the choice is ultimately yours – and that’s how unemployed volunteers might build confidence, skills and attitudes that lead to employability and work. Either this, or maintain these attributes instead of feeling gradually more useless and unemployable.
Mandatory work activity is not volunteering. Volunteers of every flavour built the voluntary organisations we work and volunteer for, and motivations for this were – and remain – many and varied. They didn’t do it because they were told to. Plenty of people, unemployed and otherwise, are continuing to build our communities as volunteers – although some are being lost because they are being forced elsewhere to complete unmatched work placements; as well as a loss to the organisation, what loss of experience and skills for the volunteer?
Mandatory work placements in private companies – Asda, McDonalds to name just two – are simply unfair – they make a mockery of competition, and don’t achieve their goal of job creation or getting people into employment.
Mandatory work placements in voluntary organisations shift our mission from community building to disempowerment, and muddle our view as a nation of voluntary activity.
I will continue to work for support and funding to persuade, cajole, motivate, and encourage as many people as possible into volunteering: this experience has an amazing effect on individuals and communities. Volunteering – Getting Involved – Participating – changes lives, and there are projects up and down the country providing these opportunities and getting people into them every day.
Support them. Not Workfare.
Find out private, public and voluntary organisations participating in mandatory work activity programmes. Avoid them!
Mental Health Charity Mind’s statement on the workfare scheme and the work programme
IVR’s ‘Gateway to Work’ report: the link between volunteering and employability
Pathways through Participation research: why people get involved and stay involved.
Find your local Volunteer Centre: often the place in your area that knows the most about volunteering projects for harder to reach groups.
The high profile case of the volunteer forced to work in Poundland in favour of her own freely-chosen volunteering http://www.thirdsector.co.uk/news/1170650/