Maximising the role of volunteering in back to work programmes

A report from the CBI suggests that there is a serious skills deficit among people applying for work. Recognition is mounting of the role volunteering can play in narrowing this skills gap. And yet evidence on the ground suggests there are significant issues with the operation of back to work programmes which are limiting the contribution volunteering can make.

In a quick canvass of opinion among Volunteer Centre managers, three main issues were identified:

On-going confusion between mandatory community work placements and volunteering

NCVO has secured commitment from DWP that Community Work Placements will not be conflated with volunteering, yet this message is clearly failing to get across to the organisations which have been contracted to deliver the programme. We heard from several Volunteer Centres who had been contacted by ‘primes’ to help them find suitable ‘volunteering’ opportunities for their clients on the scheme. When challenged on the issue, the primes usually backed away and broke off contact.

It is for individual charities to decide whether involvement in such mandatory programmes is in line with their mission, but in making this call they need to know what they are getting in to. In particular, any community work placements they choose to offer must be structured to preserve the distinctiveness and integrity of their volunteering programmes.

Some people are being taken off volunteering and placed onto mandatory schemes

Given what we know about the value of volunteering in equipping people with the skills and experience essential for work, it seems nonsensical that some people are being forced to leave their volunteering to take up a place on a mandatory community work placement. And yet that is what appears to be happening in some instances. As one Volunteer Centre manager commented:

It seems illogical to me that a young person who has managed to secure himself volunteering placements, shown commitment and dedication, grown in confidence and ability, and given valuable support to a local charity, is then pulled away on the promise of support that is not only not delivered, but falsely described as a work placement.

Some Volunteer Centres reported continuing confusion over the interpretation of benefit rules, with claimants being penalised both for volunteering and for not volunteering. Where volunteering is helping people gain the skills and experience they need to strengthen their chances of finding work, they should be encouraged to continue and not threatened with sanctions.

Money is still failing to be passed through the supply chain

The Merlin Standard makes it clear that money in work programme contracts should flow through to organisations which provide a service to clients as part of their journey into work. And yet our brief canvass of local practice suggests that this is palpably failing to happen in many places.

Several Volunteer Centres reported that primes had contacted them repeatedly to ask them to find both volunteering opportunities and mandatory community placements (and often as we have seen without discrimination) for their clients, but that they had baulked at any suggestion that they should be reimbursed for their work. One Volunteer Centre manager commented that their local prime had asked them to find placement opportunities but were ‘not prepared to pay a single penny to the host at all’.

At a time when voluntary organisations are being urged to diversify their funding streams and rely more on earned income for their future sustainability, it is paradoxical and indefensible that such money is not being passed on by prime contractors.
So what’s to be done?

I would suggest that five things need to change for a start:

1. Clearer guidance

DWP should tighten its guidance to contractors to make it crystal clear that volunteering and mandatory community work placements are not the same thing. The current state of confusion risks undermining the integrity of volunteering and limiting the important role it can play within an overall back to work strategy.

2. Support for volunteer programmes

More should be done to support the development of volunteering programmes as part of this strategy, drawing on the success of such recent initiatives as our own Volunteering for Stronger Communities, which showed that volunteering, combined with employability training, can make a significant difference to an individual’s search for work.

3. Better training

Job Centre staff should be better trained in the value of volunteering and in interpretation of benefit regulations, and should be encouraged to recognise that properly structured volunteering programmes may have equal or even greater value in enhancing employability than other back to work interventions.

4. Better links between agencies

Better links should be made between local Job Centres and Volunteer Centres to enhance understanding of the role volunteering can play as part of a back to work strategy, drawing on the pockets of excellent practice which already exist. NCVO is discussing with DWP plans to run a series of local roundtables to share good practice and strengthen this mutual understanding.

5. Recognise contributions

Implementation of the Merlin Standard should be strengthened to ensure that voluntary organisations playing a significant role in back to work programmes are appropriately reimbursed for their contribution.

Volunteering has an important role to play in helping people into work. Volunteer Centres and voluntary organisations stand ready to play their full part in harnessing this power. But without change this contribution will remain damagingly unfulfilled.

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Justin Davis Smith Justin Davis Smith was formerly executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. Justin is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

5 Responses to Maximising the role of volunteering in back to work programmes

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading this blog and am having the same experience with primes myself. However, I’d just like to say that we have a brilliant relationship with one of local Job Centres – Halesowen. I’ve spoken to advisors, run a monthly interview day there and staff contact me with queries. It’s just a shame that not all JCP’s are willing to develop this kind of relationship!

  2. Eowyn Rohan says:

    Sadly, the CBI is missing the point. Unless its constituency actively engages with training of up and coming generations, providing both sponsorship and placements for candidates at College/University, any assertion that “there is a serious skills deficit among people applying for work. ” is flawed beyond contempt. Additionally, there are reports that employers reject candidates for jobs on entirely spurious grounds, whereas Forbes Magazine (for example) raising the premise “Should all Social Media Managers be under 25?”
    ,other reports suggest that employers discriminate against candidates who are older than 50,
    , whilst other reports suggest that racism is endemic. 50% of black males, under 24’s, are reportedly unemployed

    Lets not take, at face value, any claims offered by the CBI that “there is a serious skills deficit among people applying for work.”. Perhaps the only evidence of any Skills Shortage is within the CBI,

    Based on these anecdotal reports

  3. There are many charities that are run by volunteers that are in dire need of funding and having “primes” jealously holding onto funding is criminal. The charity I run is one of these requiring funding, we have helped many volunteers get work and for nothing.
    The “Primes” are nothing but making money making enterprises earning money off the misery of the poor, where as community organisations such as ours are actually doing something about the problem, that is instead of sanctioning vulnerable people and leaving them in penury.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Amazing article!!

    As a young person myself, I find that most often or not staff members of the job center are unclear about what can and cannot be done.

    I think its important that young people are given a voice to express what it is they want and how they want to develop. I found that in the past when I went to the job center merely to sign on, staff were what I would call mean and inconsiderate and gave textbook information stating that volunteering and ‘other projects’ were not considered work and they do their best to make you into another number that goes through the system, no emphasis on exploring or developing confidence, skills and abilities.

    It wasn’t till I started getting emotional and sharing my needs and want I actually want to do that they started to look outside their box and think about other ways of getting experience that mattered to me.. (Since I’m interested in grassroots community organisation, which is never a paid job!! Just a passion and a difficult one to manage).. In some ways, the not yet confident unemployed need to become confident enough to at least ask for genuine assistance. Skills don’t develop overnight and we are instead taught that we must work straight out of schools in jobs that will kill our souls.. So yes we’re a getting lost trying to find our paths generation.

    The idea of creating better links between agencies is for me top priority. I was lucky to come across a guy in the job center who spends his time meeting with external organisations and finding out what they do so he can signpost and offer extra support to young people. Thing is, if its just a ‘job’ to you then you won’t make the effort to make connections and build better communication. Open communication and sharing is always the answer, in its most simple form :)

  5. I agree that for the unemployed, volunteering can be an excellent pathway back to work. However I don’t think it is good that unemployed people are FORCED out of voluntary work and “back to work”.

    Volunteering these days is accountable & effective – having someone involved who is not accountable & effective isn’t worth the trouble these days. The work volunteers do is also essential work & there remains plenty of essential work which needs to be done. Much of this work is not commercial – only volunteers can do it because it isn’t profit generating. Such work should be recognised by society (as represented by government) as genuine work – unemployed people doing voluntary work should be seen as fulfilling their “mutual obligation” for receipt of the dole.

    Finding new non commercial ways to socially include the unemployed is likely to become ever more important. Please check out