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 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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