On today's anniversary of the launch of the Titanic it seems slightly fitting to be writing a blog post that could be summarised by the old quote, "Professionals built the Titanic but volunteers built the Ark". I first heard this quote many years ago to illustrate the point that paying someone to do something doesn't mean they do a better job. Sadly, this message still needs to get through to many people, especially when it comes to their understanding of the potential of volunteers.
Just last week, Community Care magazine ran an article entitled "Is social care ripe for volunteering?". Following on from yet another re-launch of the Big Society by the Prime Minister last week, the article looks at the potential for volunteering within the context of the social care field.
Things don't start well when the sub-heading to the piece states "The coalition government is pushing for more volunteering in social care, but will this encroach on the domain of the paid workforce?". I'm not going to go into job displacement/replacement issues here (perhaps that's a topic for another blog) but it is sad, if not surprising, to see the article focus on a negative before it has even begun. Why not phrase it in terms of how volunteering could add value to social work?
Anyway, I digress. What I want to focus on here are the comments attributed to Helga Pile, National Officer for social work at the public service union Unison.
Ms Pile starts by saying that "There is no doubting the commitment and value that volunteers can offer, but public services must be delivered by trained, qualified staff who are part of a stable workforce. Volunteers cannot be used as a cut price alternative."
My first problem here is the assumption that volunteers are not trained or qualified. Nobody would advocate to let untrained volunteers loose in the turbulent waters of social care or indeed any other role, yet sadly this is the default assumption. But many volunteers are highly skilled and sometimes uniquely qualified to do challenging roles. In the context of the Community Care article this could be because they are retired social workers, putting a lifetime of skills and experience to use as volunteers. Or they could have undergone rigorous training to be qualified for their role and, as volunteers, perhaps gain the trust of clients because of their unpaid status, something I've seen first hand with volunteers supporting young people in care.
Before anyone comments that nobody would want to put their skills to use in such a challenging context, especially if they have spent their working lives doing similar roles, then take as an example the recent case of the retired engineers volunteering to work at the still very dangerous Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.
My second problem with Ms Pile's comments is that by using 'cut price alternative' language she seems to be implying that part of the problem with volunteers getting involved in social care is that they are unpaid. Set aside the issues of competence Ms Pile, like many others, seems to be equating unpaid with unqualified.
This thought process seems to be revealed further as the article progresses.
"Trained, qualified workers are able to make very complex judgments around risk - 'spotting the danger signs that volunteers could easily miss,' she [Ms Pile] says. They also benefit from the experience and knowledge of colleagues and, crucially, they are totally accountable to local people."
Let's explore that a bit further. Set aside the false assumption we've looked at that volunteers are by definition unqualified, the argument seems to be that trained, qualified and (by implication) paid social workers spot danger signs volunteers would miss, make complex judgements volunteers are incapable of and are accountable to local people.
Was that the case with Baby P? Victoria Climbie? Khyra Ishaq? Amy Howson? Alfie Goddard? [See this article for details on some of these appalling cases].
These are emotive examples and I am not for one second using them to tar the social work profession with one brush. Nor am I suggesting that volunteers would have done a better job in these tragic and complex cases.
What I am saying is that we should not blindly assume that because someone is paid to do a job they are more competent, skilled and equipped than someone who might do a similar role as a volunteer.
Like it or not we live in a world where we no longer have the funds to pay for all the things we used to pay for. Sadly that includes the salaries of employees, as I can personally testify.
We need to develop new ways of thinking about how we meet the challenges we face. In human resource terms, this includes how we deploy paid staff and volunteers to maximum effect and client/community benefit.
To do this we need to cultivate more open minds about what volunteers can do and their potential to meet these challenges.
Simply dismissing volunteers as unpaid and incompetent has always been insulting.
Maintaining that mindset today could have serious consequences for our ability to meet the needs of the most vulnerable members of society in future.