Today, in their latest act of rushing out policy discussions in order to correct their slight slide in the polls, the Conservatives announced that if elected they would mandate an extra three days off a year for employees to volunteer. It’s not a new policy, as Labour have already pointed out, David Cameron suggested a very similar plan in 2008, but Coalition government, not able to introduce everything, massive financial crisis, yaddah, yaddah. Let’s look at it on its merits today.
Firstly it smacks to me not only of rather banal electioneering, but another way in which volunteering and charity sector issues are thought of in such uncritical terms. Volunteering is a ‘good thing’, ergo more time to do it equals better society, better employees, more productivity, glorious nirvana for all. To an extent, we know that can be true. But as Eric Pickles’ interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today revealed this morning, we have no idea how that’s going to be funded. As Lisa Nandy has already said:
Giving every public servant three extra days off could cost millions of pounds but there’s no sense of how it will be paid for. If just half of public sector workers took this up it would be the time equivalent of around 2,000 nurses, 800 police and almost 3,000 teachers.
As over 1.3million people work in the NHS for instance, that’s an extra potential 3.9million days ‘off’ that need to be funded.
But my main gripe is about the football that is volunteering. Volunteering is not simple and it is not free. Volunteering is not a splash and dash system. It requires the hard work of professional volunteer recruiters and managers to find willing volunteers, find out their needs and interests, and match them with a proper organisation. The fact that this proposal comes with no extra funding for Volunteer Centres or infrastructure and brokerage workers shows how politicians can just go ‘Oh put some volunteering on’, and organisations like the CBI and even, for heaven’s sake, the Head of the NCVO, will just blindly accept it. Only, it seems,the Institute of Directors are asking how it will be paid for, and querying the quasi-paid nature of employee volunteering (as Eddy Hogg asks, what’s next, awake sleeping?).
The other problem is employee volunteering. Employee volunteering schemes can be great, but they are often misused. Organisations see volunteering as an opportunity for bonding, spending the day clearing a canal, organised by a charity, then decamping to the pub, to both give something back and to get to know your team a bit better. That’s all great. But that’s also what paint-balling is for, or cupcake making. If organisations want to do employee volunteering, in the view of Lynne Berry (Chair of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing) at a recent IVR event, charities should charge for employee volunteering, as it can be costly to run. Stop taking volunteer supporting organisations for a ride.
The big society died for many reasons. The funding was thrown at a dodgy organisation. There wasn’t the public mood for it (although the Olympics showed something was possible). Cuts came to dominate, and the ‘cover for cuts’ narrative took hold. And it was trying to reinvent the wheel when we already have one. A lazy, unfunded, previously announced announcement is a bit of an insult to those working in volunteering, but has probably stopped everyone thinking about how mean Michael Fallon is for a bit.