The future of work in the voluntary sector

I’ll be speaking later this week at an event on the future of work in the voluntary sector*, so in preparation I thought I would share a few thoughts on what I might say plus share a few things I read in preparation. The event is being run by TSRC – if you’re interested, the Twitter hashtag will be #workfuture3S; I’ll be tweeting at the event: I’m @karlwilding on Twitter. (*It’s actually the future of work in the third sector, but I’m contractually obliged to not use that phrase).

So what’s the context for this discussion? It’s worth noting that the last decade has seen a slow, steady increase in the number of people working in the sector (as employment has increased overall), but that this has now stalled. Two-thirds of the sector’s workforce are women; and many are part time. Health and social care account for over half of those working in the sector. Volunteers – unpaid workers, if you like – continue to be a defining characteristic of the sector. My final bit of context is that work in the sector over the last decade has been accompanied by professionalisation (look at all those professional associations for VCS staff), the sense you can have a career in the sector, but also anecdotal evidence that there is more interchange between sectors.

1. What’s shaping the world of work in all sectors? Is the future more of the same? Maybe, but there are some broader changes (‘drivers’) in the political and operating environment that suggest maybe not: my quick scan of some of the thousands of ‘work futures’ reports highlights some common themes:

  • longevity: an ageing workforce, with different generations working side by side
  • globalisation: a more inter-connected world where talented, skilled staff are mobile and services are increasingly traded
  • the ‘super-diversity‘ of employees and the resultant flexibility needed to manage this workforce
  • purpose, values and meaning: the idea that people want more from work than just wages (though maybe less relevant now?)
  • disruptions caused by new technologies (such as automation, mobility and empowered customers…though maybe not home working?)
  • blurring boundaries between home and work (and any notion of work-life balance).

Graeme Codrington, who tweets as @workforcetrends, is good to follow on these issues, and I would particularly recommend this article on nine key workforce trends. It’s worth reading this article from London Business School on trends and implications for HR, whilst this report by PwC has thoughtful scenarios for work in 2020. Richard Donkin is also well worth a look (his book on the future of work looks interesting!).

2. Are there voluntary sector specific drivers shaping the world of work? In addition to the above trends and drivers, I thought we might add some voluntary sector specific issues:

  • big changes in the public services ‘industry’ as government looks to more independent providers or to ‘spin out’ some services
  • deepening resource pressures, including cuts in statutory funding, increasing costs and rising need/demand
  • continued influence of social enterprise thinking, including pressure to be more ‘businesslike’ and the rise of the ‘social entrepreneur’
  • pressures in terms of accountability from a range of stakeholders, but particularly the need to demonstrate impact

3. What does it all mean? The future of work in the voluntary sector… Predictions are difficult, especially when they’re about the future. But here are 3 issues I think I will raise at the panel session:

  1. Rising tensions as the boundaries blur between paid and unpaid staff? That’s always been there, but Margaret Harris recently highlighted that volunteers and paid staff working side-by-side in the same work context is going to raise some difficult ethical questions, not to mention management questions. We’re seeing similar ethical challenges in relation to interns and payment for trustees. One only need look at the debate about libraries and volunteers to see the fault lines.
  2. What are the job roles and skills needed for the sector in the future? Will the rise of big and open data mean the sector becomes a place more suited to business analysts than campaigners? Will the (predicted) rise of social finance and investment (such as Social Impact Bonds) see fundraisers defer to corporate financiers? Will partnership managers traditionally focussed on the public sector instead need to think about the skills needed to position their charity within corporate supply chains? And does a more globalised world mean that to compete in a cut-throat public services industry we will need to ‘offshore’ or outsource more job roles?
  3. Are the next wave of social entrepreneurs working in the sector already? Or do they think the sector isnt relevant to how they want to change the world? Does the sector understand the strategic importance of new technology to invest in people and skills? This one worries me. My question is whether the Millennials see voluntary organisations as part of the problem…and whether organisations (and their connections to resources and networks) see the new informal, networked ways of working as a threat.

You can find out more about the event here. I’ll try and report back, plus I’ll summarise any comments I receive via twitter if you want to feedback on the above!

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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