Volunteering works

We’ve known intuitively that volunteering can aid employability. Well now we have the results to prove it. This month sees the culmination of a three year project, funded by the Big Lottery Fund, and run by NCVO through a partnership with 15 Volunteer Centres, which set out to explore the contribution of volunteering in dealing with one of the big social problems of our time – long-term unemployment. The results are startling. Over 20% of participants who took part in the project had found a paid job after volunteering. And we are talking here about some of the most disadvantaged in our society; individuals suffering from multiple deprivation, many of whom had been out of work for a considerable period of time. The results, moreover, were not confined to getting people into work. There were significant gains recorded in employability and in health and well-being for a far larger proportion than those who found jobs, with strong evidence of the role of volunteering in building the ‘soft’ as well as the ‘hard skills’ so necessary for success in today’s tough labour market.

It is worth looking closely at what it was about this programme that brought about such a successful outcome, as some other studies have challenged the link between volunteering and employment. First, the projects managed to combine good quality, meaningful volunteering opportunities with other more conventional job-related support such as interview training and CV writing. Second, they provided on-going support and coaching for the volunteers, helping them to reflect on their experience and in the process build the skills and confidence to equip them for the world of work. Third, they built connections across the voluntary, private and statutory sectors, with many making excellent links with the employment services and Job Centres.

What is particularly notable about the NCVO project is the role of volunteer centres, and their skilled and committed staff, in brokering the relationships and providing the support, both to the individual and to the group providing the volunteering opportunities. For those who claim that the traditional volunteer centre has had its day and all its work can be taken over by online solutions, I would urge them to take a long hard look at this report. The project would not have worked without the face-to-face interaction – the human touch – and the qualities of the individuals running the projects. This is not NCVO bigging up the volunteer centre network. It is a robust, independent evaluation from a well-respected research institute, the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University, which demonstrates just how crucial local centres of volunteering expertise are in making volunteering work, especially for the most disadvantaged in our community. If we are serious about unlocking the full potential of volunteering to help deal with the crisis of long-term unemployment, and all the human and societal waste that flows from this, then we need to confront the issue of funding for volunteer centres. Perhaps this report will work where others have failed.

We know only too well that volunteering, especially intensive volunteering like this, is not free. Fantastic value, yes, but free, no. But then nobody has ever claimed that getting people back into work is cheap. The Work Programme will cost a staggering £3.5 billion over a five year term, and the jury is still out on its effectiveness in dealing with the hardest to reach claimants. Volunteering stacks up favourably against these other interventions but will only succeed if the political will and the funding are there. We need changes to the funding regime of the Work Programme. Some Job Centre Plus and Prime Contractors get the value of volunteering and are enthusiastic in searching out volunteer centres to help place their ‘clients’ in meaningful roles. But very few have wised up to the basic principle that this service costs and that volunteer centres should be reimbursed for the work they do. We need a flow of funds through the supply chain from Primes to volunteer centres in recognition of the service they provide. But we also need further training and support to hard-pressed front line benefit staff in understanding the value of volunteering and the role of volunteer centres. We still hear reports of individual claimants who are told that their benefits will be stopped if they take on volunteering, and of centres who are rebuffed in their attempts to forge closer links with their local Job Centres – one centre has described their relationship with their Job Centre as ‘all amicable enough, but a bit cold war immovable under the surface’. We need more partnerships of the kind in Swindon where the local volunteer centre has been funded for 18 months by Job Centre Plus to set up an holistic volunteering programme to help get long-term unemployed people into work.

Long-term unemployment is one of the scourges of our society. Volunteering is not the answer to the problem but this report suggests it is an important part of the solution. Together we need to make the case that volunteering works!

I will leave the last word to Debbie, one of the volunteers involved in the project:

‘Before I started I had no confidence. Now I’ve got enough confidence to put myself forward. I’m a lot better on the phone. Before I was really nervous and stuttering. It’s certainly boosted my IT skills. I’ve also made a lot of new friends. Everyone in the Council for Voluntary Service is great. It’s like one big family…The job came about through volunteering. I could not have got it without it’.

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