Awards for all

Volunteer Awards

Over the past couple of weeks I have had the privilege of being involved as a judge for two very different but equally worthy volunteering awards. The first is the long-running Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, which celebrates those brilliant volunteer-led groups across the UK which make such a positive difference to our communities.

Every year I am bowled over by the range of organisations which are up for an award and every year the real challenge is choosing between so many fantastic competing submissions. But it is a lovely challenge to have and I always come away from the selection meetings inspired by what I have read and reinvigorated for the challenges ahead we face as a sector.

And then out of the blue a week or so ago I was asked by ITV Daybreak if I would be a judge for their Flood Heroes awards, to celebrate the people who rushed to the rescue of their friends and neighbours whose lives were turned upside down in the freak weather over Christmas and the New Year. Once again the judging was almost impossible given the amazing stories placed in front of us, and once again I came away with a renewed sense of hope for the future and pride in our volunteer movement.

But here’s the thing. On the way back from the studios I began to muse on the whole issue of awards and much to my surprise reached the view that we can’t have enough. I have been one of the fiercest critics over the years of government obsession with starting up new volunteering vanity programmes, when what is so obviously needed is investment in what has been proven to work. But with award schemes I found I was strangely relaxed and indeed now feel the more the merrier.

Getting creative

What better way of celebrating the contribution that volunteers make and their value to society. So bring them on, I say. The national and the local; the generic and the sub-sector. The company awards that celebrate excellence in employer-supported volunteering. The local authority awards that applaud great things in public sector volunteering and citizen engagement. The press awards like the new Daily Telegraph volunteer of the year award established as part of its Lend a Hand Campaign. And let’s not stop there. I would like to see an award for the best Volunteer Centre and for the best Volunteer Manager, those un-sung institutions and individuals who do so much to make volunteering happen.

Let’s be creative and ambitious. Like the city of Leeds which in 2011 announced a year of volunteering to coincide with the European Year of Volunteering. Or Gateshead Council which is toying with the idea of extending this year’s Volunteers’ Week which is celebrating its 30th anniversary to the entire month of June. So forget vanity projects and let’s find ever more creative and ingenious ways of recognising and valuing volunteering.

The thorny issue of incentives

My musing (you’ll be horrified to hear) didn’t stop here and I began to mull over the vexed issues of incentives. No one has a bad thing to say about awards but incentives divide opinion like almost nothing else in the volunteering world. How far can you incentivise people to get involved before you risk undermining the very value of volunteering? Last week Global Citizen organised a high-profile concert in Wembley, where all tickets had to be earned through volunteering.

Is this a creative way of bringing new faces into the volunteering fold or does it destroy its worth? In the pages of The Times (£) the rock and pop editor decided that fence sitting wasn’t for him and lambasted the organisers for undermining the spirit of altruism by bribing kids to volunteer. What would have happened to the protest movements of the sixties he raged if we had had to pay Neil Young or Joan Baez to pen their songs of revolt?

Generation Citizen

Well two thoughts in response. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago the younger generation needs no lectures in civic behaviour; not for nothing has it been dubbed Generation Citizen. And second is there anything wrong in using the allure of a concert ticket, or some other highly prized incentive to encourage, or in the language of the moment, nudge someone into volunteering. The rock corps experience is interesting in that their evidence suggests that not only do they reach a group of young people who haven’t volunteered before but that many go on after the concert to volunteer in more traditional ways. Surely that must count for something.

And if we look at the research evidence on volunteering we see that motivations are always a mix of the altruistic and the self-interested, with people looking to give something and get something in return. An opportunity to learn new skills and find work; a chance to meet people and learn new skills; or even the warm glow and sense of well-being which comes from helping others and doing your bit. This notion of exchange and reciprocity is at the heart of volunteering and should be celebrated not derided as being infinitely more democratic and egalitarian than a one-sided gift relationship which smacks too much of Victorian charity and noblesse oblige.

Maintaining the distinctiveness of volunteering

Of course we need to draw a line if we are to protect what is special about volunteering and avoid its corruption as a form of low paid work. Volunteering must always remain an activity which is undertaken not primarily in return for financial gain and should never be confused with work. But where we draw that line is something of a moot point and may differ over time and for different generations.

Anyway back to the concert tickets. Personally I don’t have a problem and am excited by the fact that new people are getting involved. And as for awards, let’s use the coming 30th anniversary of Volunteers Week to mount a mass celebration the length and breadth of the country of all things volunteering.


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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.

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