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New era for volunteers
23 January 2007
by Barbara Regnier

"Should the salt of the earth be managed?" asked the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in 1983, referring to the trend for formalising the training of those who gave their spare time to help a worthy cause. The response to this question when repeated since has always been 'yes'. And the trend towards professionalism has continued and appears to be welcomed by volunteers.
So where's the problem? Could it be concern within the voluntary sector that the principle of the amateur volunteer is at risk of being subsumed by a workplace culture, with training and targets taking precedence over the charity itself?

The political climate, which has made a virtue of the skills-based culture, has increased the tensions. The recent Leitch review identified a woeful lack of basic skills within the UK. Out of 30 countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) the UK came 17th in low-end skills and has set ambitious targets for improving qualifications and skills by 2020. Although the report makes no mention of volunteers, the fact that many university courses, particularly those in health or social care, openly favour candidates with relevant volunteer experience, exposes a culture of volunteering as work experience that is likely to spread.

As head of a department within Volunteering England (VE) with responsibility for management development and leadership for managers of volunteering, I must nail my colours to the mast. I believe that training those who manage volunteers, approximately half of whom are volunteers themselves is both beneficial and necessary. At the same time, I don't believe that the 'salt of the earth' volunteers, whose aim is to help their community or make friends, need not be alienated. They can gain as much from a professional manager as the school leaver who wants to improve their CV.

It is difficult to ensure that both of these volunteers, with their differing motivations and skills, are kept happy. Respecting sensibilities requires tact and judgement, and while some people are blessed with such capabilities, training on such matters can never be wasted. Which is why we are launching the Excellence in Volunteer Management (EVM) programme at the Tools of the Trade conferences in London on Wednesday and Leeds on February 20.

A recent poll conducted by Volunteering England found that over 70% of people thought the professionalisation of volunteer managers was good for the sector. Another survey found 86% of people believed that volunteer management training should be accredited. There is clearly a desire for knowledge among those who help volunteers achieve their goals, as well as the people the organisation is trying to help.

Professionalisation is about equipping people to respond to the needs of the individual, and not about money. Managers of volunteers can be paid or unpaid, but that makes them staff or volunteers respectively. EVM is suitable for all, and we are aiming to achieve a balance between flexibility and accreditation, lightness and formality through bite-sized learning, which does not reek of school or the job centre.

Proper volunteer manager training and accreditation will also benefit the organisation as a whole. Whether you approve or not, government grants increasingly demand that volunteers are well supported and training can only help a funding application.

Furthermore, a commitment to volunteer training will also help in the controversial area of risk management. Regardless of your position on whether organisations involving volunteers are becoming over risk-averse, the reality is that insurance companies will favour those with both a risk assessment plan and an accredited volunteer management scheme (such as EVM or Investing in Volunteers).

However, even without the added incentive of increased funding and lower insurance premiums, the most compelling argument must surely be that volunteering should be a positive experience. Anything else is just a bonus.