Volunteering is a personal choice


Paul Reddish calls for the volunteer to be given a voice in the debate over what are appropriate volunteering opportunities

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11th December 2017 by TFN Guest 1 Comment

Over 1.5 million people willingly give up their time to support causes, events and projects every year. People volunteer for all sorts of reasons. Young People are able to use it to help develop their skills, while for older people it can be a critical route to avoiding isolation and loneliness. The benefits are wide ranging and well researched. Volunteering is generally regarded as a good thing for all involved. As a voluntary sector I think we can do more to promote it.

It’s frustrating therefore that we now find ourselves in a debate about whether volunteering is exploitation. As is often the case, it is not that simple. If we focus on negative consequences, intended or not, we are not telling the whole story. 

The debate until now has been dominated with views on what should and shouldn’t be appropriate – and the voice of the volunteer is missing.

Paul Reddish

Paul Reddish

Not considering their views and needs undermines the fantastic work being done by volunteers and volunteer involving organisations throughout the country.  

We need to get the volunteers’ voice back at the heart of this debate, and make sure we acknowledge their opportunity to make their own decisions regarding how to give up their time.

Is Underbelly right to offer volunteering opportunities?

I don’t think that it is unreasonable for Unite and Better than Zero to question Underbelly’s approach to offering volunteering opportunities to ensure they are genuinely that.

Those of us involved in volunteering professionally work to a number of ethical boundaries which we believe should not be crossed. For example, it is simply not appropriate in any scenario to use volunteers to replace paid jobs, or to take part in roles core to the delivery of a particular service previously run by employees. Volunteering opportunities also need to be designed with the benefits to the volunteer at the forefront.

I would expect that as part of any bid to win the contract for Edinburgh’s Christmas that volunteering should have been explicitly mentioned given the scale of the programme, and safeguards put in place to protect and cover these points. This should have offered the assurances that those worried about roles replacing jobs would quite rightly seek, and allowed the conversation to move to what these opportunities might look like, and how individuals might benefit if they volunteer. If this is done well and for the right reasons, large scale event volunteering opportunities can be fantastically rewarding – as many of those that volunteered at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games will attest to.

Rather worryingly, the leader of the council this week said he was only made aware of the volunteer programme when it was made public. If this is true and we’ve no reason at this stage to believe otherwise, it is concerning that such a large volunteering commitment should be part of an event without this being made known as part of the bidding process. That does raise questions regarding Underbelly’s commitment to the volunteers taking part.  

City of Edinburgh Council cannot be blamed for something it knew nothing about. However, I think it is incumbent on it to seek assurances about the quality of the volunteering offer, and the commitment to this being over and above paid roles one would presume were outlined in such a large bid. If it is a cost cutting exercise, the likes of Unite and Better than Zero have solid grounds to complain and the council must be compelled to intervene.

Let potential volunteers have the last say in this debate

If however the council is satisfied this is not the case, let’s let people decide for themselves whether or not they want to give up their time in this way.  

It has been suggested that as Underbelly is a private company and not a charity, that it should not be offering volunteering opportunities at all. Many will have sympathy with that argument, and I’ve no doubt it will be a factor in people’s decision in taking part. We should all be given the choice to make up our own minds, and equally we should afford the same opportunity to others. Let’s not shut down opportunities before potential volunteers get the opportunity to consider their merits.

Those of us who support opportunities to volunteer know one thing above all – volunteers will vote with their feet. They know what they want and they have high expectations of us.  

If the offer in return for giving up their time is not compelling enough, they simply won’t take part. If they take part and it doesn’t meet their expectations, they won’t do it again.

If you get it right, volunteering is brilliant for everyone involved. 

More power to the volunteer.  Allowing people the choice regarding how they give up their time is the point of volunteering after all, isn’t it?

Paul Reddish is chief executive of Project Scotland

11th December 2017 by jeremy

What an utter scab! If a company can pay someone for their labour they should. Anything else sets a horrible precedent. I am sure it would help to streamline Mr Reddish's organisation if his job (and that of his PA, his management team etc) was done by a volunteer - but how would he (and his PA and his management team) pay their mortgages and feed themselves? He says "We need to get the volunteers’ voice back at the heart of this debate" - no we do not - the voice which needs to be heard is the people who might reasonably expect to be doing this seasonal work for wages.