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‘George Osborne needs to understand that volunteering isn’t free’

Recently George Osborne announced his plans for the coalition’s new Help to Work scheme to get people who have been unemployed for three years or more back into work. Those in the scheme will have to attend daily appointments at the job centre, take part in literacy and numeracy support sessions and/or participate in community work placements, which could involve charities.

Charities have long led the way in supporting people back into employment, thanks to their passion, expertise and close connections to beneficiaries and local communities. The sector undoubtedly has a central role to play in tackling the problem of unemployment, both at local level as well as through central government initiatives such as the Work Programme.

At the same time, the volunteering opportunities provided by charities give people an opportunity to support causes they are passionate about, develop their skills and experience, and make a hugely valuable contribution to charities’ vital work with beneficiaries.

However, if the government expects charities to take on many more volunteers through the Help to Work scheme, those places will need to be funded. Governments tend to think of volunteering as free, but it entails significant expense that needs to be met. Volunteers need to be supervised, managed, insured and trained – and that costs money.

According to an estimate published by Natural England, each of their 2,000+ volunteers costs the organisation £174. With both public and private sources of charitable income having been hit by the economic slowdown and resulting cuts to government funding, very few voluntary organisations will be in a position to effectively subsidise the government’s proposals by accepting volunteers that are not funded.

In addition, many charities will have strong reservations about taking on volunteers on mandatory placements – indeed, it is questionable whether they could really be described as ‘volunteers’ at all. Volunteers should be motivated by passion to make a difference – not forced to participate under the threat of losing their benefits.

Charities’ volunteer recruitment processes are designed to ensure that all parties involved feel the experience will be of mutual benefit. Many organisations will be concerned about taking on the role of penalising people on schemes who may lose benefits undermining the charitable ethos as well as their existing recruitment processes. The voluntary sector cannot act as an enforcement agency for the Department for Work and Pensions.

We do not yet know the details of the planned Help to Work scheme and many in the sector will no doubt be monitoring its development with interest. There are many questions to be answered, including whether the programme can provide jobseekers, including those furthest from the labour market, with real opportunities to address barriers to employment and progress towards finding a job. Therefore, we will be working to support our members and the sector to understand the details and implications the programme.

The government is right to see the voluntary sector as a key part of the solution to tackling unemployment, drawing on the skills and knowledge of voluntary organisations but it must recognise that nothing comes for free – not even volunteers.

An excellent article by Stephen Bubb. He is the chief executive of ACEVO, the UK charity leaders representative body. If you would like to read the full article click here.

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