How we’re Keeping Volunteering Voluntary

Shelley at the Volunteer Managers' Forum

By Shelley Hart, HAVCO Volunteer Centre Manager and Havering Volunteer Managers Forum co-ordinator

After attending a conference at Greater London Volunteering where Keep Volunteering Voluntary (KVV) were speaking, and hearing first hand from a volunteer who had been subjected to sanctions, I felt very passionately about raising awareness further into my own local area and borough I work in.

Having worked in the voluntary sector for over 13 years and had the privilege of working alongside many volunteers from many different backgrounds, abilities, skills and knowledge I had never heard about sanctions and what this meant to a volunteer.

At the GLV meeting, KVV presented a very insightful and moving insight into how many organisations are tricked into taking workfare placements in their organisations thinking they are assisting the person in gaining a placement. What they aren’t told is that the placement is not voluntary and the person will be placed wherever the opportunity is regardless of their individual skills base, their ability, their mobility and their likes and dislikes. The main aim seems to be simply for that person to be removed from the unemployed quota.

If the person does not take this placement that has been found for them by the Job Centre (JC) then sanctions are evoked. What are Sanctions? – a removal of their benefits for a minimum of several weeks and possibly months. Instantly - without reasoning or discussion – benefits are stopped.

What I found most alarming is that the person on placement appears to have no rights, no voice, no decision making on their own volition – they are just told and instructed to take the placement or face the consequences.

There could be legitimate reasons why someone could not take the placement on offer by the JC. It could be too many hours, it may involve travelling a further distance than necessary, there could be carer’s responsibility i.e. child care – collecting and dropping off at school. Health issues, mobility difficulties, none of which are taken into consideration. Take the placement or lose your benefits.

The person who presented at the conference had such sanctions imposed on him. He suffered greatly as a result, he could not eat as he had no money to buy food, pay bills or manage daily living. His health suffered, this triggered his diabetes to become unaligned and it has taken over 2 years for this to improve. He was hospitalised due to this.

Organisations are contacted by the JC or private subcontractors and informed they have several “volunteers” that can help their organisation. They can “volunteer” for weeks and the organisation can receive money as result of taking the placements as an incentive! Once the organisation is signed up, they will have to monitor the volunteer daily: do they attend on time, are they late and if so how many times and how long? Do they stay all day? Depending on what is reported, again sanctions can be placed on the volunteer and again benefits stopped. I would not feel happy having taken a placement under these circumstances to report on them and risk them losing their benefits because they were late or had to leave early.

This goes against the very ethos of volunteering.

Also a volunteer could be happy volunteering with an organisation and happily giving their time for free for the cause that they chose. The JC can remove the volunteer from this placement already established and drop that person into any organisation they wish, different skill set and not suitable for the individual. The original organisation will suffer because they lose a good, loyal, trusted volunteer. The volunteer suffers because they are ripped away from somewhere they feel comfortable, gaining confidence with and using their skills and learning more to be taken away without any consultation what so ever.

I have been approached as manager of a Volunteer Centre by a Job Centre to take these placements. The first question I ask is: “Are they on a work placement scheme and will there be sanctions imposed on the volunteer?” If the answer is yes then I will not engage with the JC and state the reason why.

My role as a volunteer manager is to assist citizens to seek opportunities to volunteer that suit their needs. We look for a good match between the organisation and the volunteer. We consider excellent use of the individual’s skills base, how the organisation will benefit from their time, and also what benefit the volunteer will receive in up skilling and confidence building etc. It is my role to ensure the experience from both parties is enjoyable and worthwhile and not one sided. The volunteer is not a commodity to be abused – they are a human being and should be valued and respected.

This is our approach and that’s why at HAVCO Volunteer Centre Havering, we’re doing all we can to Keep Volunteering:

  • At all presentations and events will display KVV literature and hand out information where possible.
  • Add it to the Havering Volunteer Managers Forum agenda as a regular item to bring to everyone’s attention
  • Raise awareness at staff/team meetings
  • Add KVV logo and footer to my emails with a link to website
  • We hope to run a media campaign via radio and local paper
  • At our Volunteers Week, we will have a display about KVV and handouts.

If you have not heard of this before, please contact KVV and find out more. We need to raise this awareness across the voluntary and community sector, to keep volunteering voluntary and let the volunteer have a voice and a choice!

So Keep Volunteering Voluntary and sign the pledge – you know it’s the right thing to do.