Justice for volunteers?

Mike Locke was the Head of Volunteering and Development at NCVO and left in July 2014. He blogged about issues with the practice, organisation and development of volunteering. His posts have been archived here.

One of the hardest issues to deal with, I find, is the volunteer who feels unjustly treated. Hard because of the distress of the volunteer, sometimes deeply hurt, sometimes very perplexed. Hard because, if the volunteering organisation and the volunteer do not already have a procedure for dealing with issues, there’s normally no way of resolving it. Hard too, because I can’t really help, beyond referring them to our information sheets on dealing with problems and to the “3R Promise” (more on that in a moment).

Some say that the volunteer can, of course, always leave and volunteer elsewhere, but that might not be the point to someone who feels they have given a chunk of their life to a cause and an organisation.

It doesn’t happen often. Overwhelmingly, research tells us volunteers are satisfied. Most volunteers feel their time is well-managed. We don’t know how many volunteers feel badly treated or how many cases would, if assessed, would be seen as involving injustices.

In Volunteering England in 2009, we set up an independent Volunteer Rights Inquiry, chaired by our Chair Sukhvinder Kaur-Stubbs and including representatives of volunteers and volunteering organisations. It called for evidence and reviewed many cases, seeking to understand the nature and scope of the problems and identify remedies. It recognised “most volunteering happens in an amicable relationship between volunteers and volunteer involving organisations; however, sometimes this relationship breaks down.”

The Inquiry considered solutions involving legislation or setting up an independent complaints commissioner (or ombudsman) but decided the ethos and practice of volunteering was better served by focussing on good practice in volunteer management. It codified this in the 3R Promise: organisations commit to doing it right, offering means of reconciliation and accepting responsibility.

The Inquiry set up the Call to Action Progress Group, which I have chaired for two years, to oversee progress and consider next steps. We took soundings from national charities and modified clauses of the Promise referring to roles of trustees and managers and to mediation (see the version on the Volunteering England website, rather than in the Inquiry report).

This group is now coming towards the end of its life. About 140 organisations have signed up to the 3R Promise – but why not more? We surveyed the signatories and found strong support for the main features of the Promise.

Now, we have to face whether the focus on the Promise has been justified. I’d very much like to hear members’ views on the 3R Promise. Has it helped? Or have you not signed up because you hadn’t heard about it – and we should have done more to publicise it? Or because you don’t see the need for it? Or because you wouldn’t agree with implementing some or all of it, or would look for a different kind of solution?

Recently, our Volunteering Development team has been receiving at least one phone-call or email a week from a volunteer who is upset about how they’ve been treated and wants to know what they can do. We can’t resolve their issues, and we can’t assess the rights and wrong in the stories. And there is no way the 3R Promise – or any other procedure – could prevent things going wrong sometimes. But I think, as a sector of organisations committed to volunteering, we’d want to be confident there is a way to resolve problems and that the experience of all volunteers, even if not always positive, could be seen to be fair. The question is how to do that?

Please write to me mike.locke@ncvo-vol.org.uk or comment below.


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