The Association of Volunteer Managers had its inaugural conference today (9th March 2011) focussing on volunteer management and the Big Society. Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society addressed the conference setting out how he saw the role of volunteer management in the Big Society. He came armed with as many questions as answers, but the fact that he was there at all was surely testament to the recognition of volunteer management’s value to the Government’s current policy agenda.
A short synopsis of what Hurd shared: Big Society is about cultural change, it’s a long process and it’s going to be difficult.
“More than volunteering”
Interestingly, given the audience of professionals working in volunteering- he chose to underline the notion that Big Society is more than volunteering. That this point needs to be made at all, signals an underlying sense of how critical volunteering is to the Big Society. Volunteering may not be the be all and end all of the Big Society, but when all’s said and done it’s the idea of volunteering that often resonates the most.
Whatever the link between volunteering and the Big Society in the minds of policy makers, Nick Hurd insisted that volunteer management was a crucial part of the equation. He pointed to the funding specifically for volunteer management that the Office of Civil Society (OCS) is making available through the European Year of the Volunteer as just one example.
He shared a short anecdote about an encounter he had had with Baroness Julia Neuberger at the time of her work on the Commission on the Future of Volunteering. When he asked her for one thing that’s crucial to the future of volunteering she responded simply: volunteer managers”. This was a Minister keen to build bridges.
Contradictory policy on volunteering
He addressed questions from delegates flagging up aspects of Government policy that seem to run counter to this expressed support for volunteering in the Big Society. For example:
- Budget cuts to the voluntary sector including infrastructure will result in making it harder, not easier for volunteer managers to do their job
- By making public service reform such a prominent aspect of the Big Society, public perception is that the Government is asking volunteers to step into fill gaps left by this deliberate retrenchment of the state. This perception is making it harder, not easier, to recruit volunteers
- Mandatory work activity (JSA reform) runs counter to the ethos of volunteering and the voluntary sector. As a result, work programmes previously run on a voluntary basis with those out of work- would no longer make sense in the voluntary sector if they became mandatory. Again, this policy may lead to less volunteering, not more.
Nick Hurd’s response to the issue of budget cuts seemed to be: ‘we know it’s painful, but it is a temporary adjustment. It will be worth it in the long run’.
His response to the public service reform was to say that this public perception will change over time – and insisted that Government had a role to play in leading this change in perceptions and culture. In fact, he gave the impression that a large part of the Government’s approach to volunteering was in how it could be a vehicle for changing social attitudes to giving and social action. There are a number of policies designed to change the attitudes including the National Citizen Service that’s aimed at the attitudes of the nation’s 16 year olds, the “civic service” initiative which challenges civil servants to rethink their relationship to the communities they work with, amongst others.
In terms of contradictions in Government policy – at one stage Nick Hurd joked, welcome to government. But he did not accept the point about mandatory work activity and suggested this contradiction was more semantic, than actual, and could be overcome.
Investment in volunteering infrastructure
In terms of the Government’s role in fostering a vibrant and efficient infrastructure for volunteering in this country, Nick Hurd told delegates that he didn’t “need any lectures on the importance of volunteering infrastructure.
He agreed it was important, but was not clear on how it could be funded in the future. He believed it should involve Central Government to a degree, but also the Big Lottery Fund and local authorities had to play their part.
Interestingly, he also floated the idea that longer term umbrella organisations should receive much more of their funding direct from their members or customers. If this could be achieved, then Hurd believed infrastructure bodies would become much more efficient than they are today.
At the moment, Hurd emphasised, the complex and fragmented system of funding is too thinly spread to make it effective and that too much of volunteer managers’ time is spent fundraising to make it efficient. This issue of infrastructure was one of the big questions that Nick Hurd came back to repeatedly: what kind of infrastructure do we need to be able to improve and shape the quality of volunteering experiences?
The role of the private sector
Another strand of the Government’s approach sketched out by Hurd included more effectively leveraging the links between local businesses and the communities in which they’re present. He spoke about a new initiative to develop business connectors who could help establish fruitful relationships for both the voluntary sector and local businesses. This was separate from, but could run in parallel with, the idea to train community organisers to do the same kind of work forging links across communities.
Hurd made reference to the support the Government has given to Chris White’s Private Member’s Bill that aims to make social impact and value a key requirement in the commissioning process in future.
It will be interesting to see whether these kinds of measures will effectively open up the space necessary for volunteering and volunteer management to play a role in service provision that can compete with private sector providers. Some delegates flagged up concerns that services built on volunteer management models would not be able to compete against private sector bids for contracts on price alone.
Professionalisation of volunteer management
When challenged Hurd accepted the development of volunteer management required nudging organisations to change their behaviour, and that it could not all be resolved by establishing the right kind of infrastructure. On the issue of professionalisation of volunteer management, Hurd somewhat baldly stated that he had no interest in this agenda and this should not be the agenda of any government. This [professionalisation], he said, was a matter for volunteer managers themselves.
There were no huge surprises in Hurd’s words, but it was refreshing to have a discussion that centred on how the Government understands what role volunteer management can play in the Big Society agenda. It formed the basis for what was a really informative and productive discussion on the future of the role of volunteer management. Long may this dialogue and discussion with volunteer managers continue.