Seventeen years ago today (4th July 1994) I started work. I didn't know it at the time but the job I took at the University of Surrey was a volunteer management role, recruiting a placing undergraduates as classroom assistants in local schools. The experience I gained in that role led me on to subsequent jobs in volunteer leadership and management and to a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding career in their field.
So it is perhaps no surprise that I was intrigued by Francis Maude's comments last week that people made redundant from the public sector should, with little or no training, be deployed into the voluntary sector to manage volunteers because "There is nothing more frustrating than seeing charities with too many volunteers they can't use because there is no one to manage them".
The comments beneath Third Sector's article do a good job of highlighting the stupidity of Mr Maude's suggestion - about the only thing he got right was the need to invest in more volunteer management support for organisations - but I want to make just five points myself.
First, Mr Maude seems to believe that volunteers work in the voluntary sector. Many do, but large numbers are also involved in the public sector too. So why does he propose these people only help charities? One might argue that charities are more used to working with volunteers than many in the public sector and so it is the latter that need more help, not the former.
Second, why would public sector workers automatically make good volunteer managers? What uniquely qualifies people from the public sector to come into charities with little training or orientation and be able to effectively lead and engage volunteers?
Third, let's just suppose for a moment that Mr Maude's idea becomes reality. Would this not lead to the displacement from employment of many skilled volunteer management professionals as organisations think they can have the work done for 'free' by Maude's army of redundant public sector volunteers? Perhaps those volunteer managers can go on to one of the many wonderful private sector jobs currently being created, skilled as they are at asking "would you like fries with that?". Or is job displacement from the voluntary sector not a concern of the government, fixated as they seem to be (the media even more so) on the public and private sectors as places of employment.
Fourth, aside from displaying his ignorance and lack of understanding on a number of issues, Mr Maude seems to have it all wrong about volunteer managers. His proposal suggests that organisations could engage redundant public sector workers to manage the large numbers of volunteers those organisations lack the capacity to involve. But that isn't how the model of volunteer management tends to work these days. Having the volunteer manager directly managing the volunteers would be like having the HR manager directly managing the paid staff.
Instead, today's volunteer manager commonly plays a supportive role to other staff and volunteers who provide the line management support and capacity that enables an organisation to effectively engage volunteers. The volunteer manager is a skilled and knowledgeable expert, adept at influencing, supporting, inspiring, leading, engaging and motivating volunteers, employees, peers, managers, the community and many others in the fulfilment of their organisations mission.
And that leads me to my fifth and final observation about Mr Maude's comments. Volunteer management is an increasingly skilled task that requires competence in perhaps a wider, more diverse and more essential range of skills and abilities than almost any other job. That's why Skills Third Sector recently published an excellent position paper on why volunteer management requires specific skills. Its is in part why I recently argued that volunteer leadership and engagement is an essential yet under-developed skill the voluntary sector needs to invest in for the future. And the HandsOn Network in the US have recently spoken about effective volunteer engagement being a collective responsibility of all staff too.
To suggest anyone can just walk in and do a good job of managing volunteers effectively not only shows gross ignorance of the role but is hugely insulting to me and others like me who have built a career in the field through hard work and dedication to the causes we've worked for and to our own professional development.
As you can tell, I feel strongly about this issue. That's why I have limited my post to just five issues or I could have gone on for hours! That and the desire to not repeat the excellent points made elsewhere by others such as the comments beneath the Third Sector article.
However, I do want to make one final observation in conclusion.
As I write this post nearly three working days have passed since Mr Maude's comments were reported. In that time I have not seen one single comment or response from Volunteering England, the Association of Volunteer Managers or any of the other bodies who purport to represent volunteer managers.
I may simply have missed such a comment (I was away volunteering in Yorkshire last week) so I would be happy for people to share links to such statements in defence of volunteer management by posting a comment in response to this blog.
However, if, as I suspect, not one single statement supporting volunteer management has been made by any of the key representative bodies, publicly or privately, then some serious questions need to be asked of their ability to stand up for volunteer managers when they come under attack like this.
What do you think of Mr Maude's comments? Is it right that bodies like VE and AVM have apparently stayed silent? What would you like to say on this issue? Please leave your comments below.