Volunteering for all

We shouldn’t need to talk about why diversity matters to an audience of the volunteering movement. But the truth of the matter is that we haven’t got it all right. Despite having our hearts in the right place there is clearly room for improvement, as research continues to remind us that access to volunteering is not evenly spread throughout society.

For example the 2007 Helping Out survey found that 32% of those people at risk of social exclusion were involved in formal volunteering in the past 12 months, compared to 42% of the population as a whole.

It is why NCVO chose the topic of diversity as the theme for the recent National Volunteering Forum in Manchester and why we have included a call for a new Access to Volunteering fund in our general election manifesto, A Bigger Difference.

But before examining what can be done to redress the situation it is worth reminding ourselves why diversity matters.

Why diversity matters?

Firstly it matters because it is the right thing to do. There is a moral issue at stake, which is about treating people with fairness and respect. And this means that the full benefits of volunteering, in terms of personal development and the opportunity to serve, should be open to all, irrespective of who they are.

Secondly, diversity is good for organisations. It can help with recruitment and retention – opening access to new talent, and ensuring volunteers are happier in their role, more productive, and stay longer.

And there is compelling evidence to show that diversity can lead to greater creativity and innovation within organisations. We know that from our own experience. Putting together teams of like-minded people will often result in jaded thinking. Constructing a team from diverse backgrounds and experiences may be the key to unlocking solutions and moving thinking on in new and exciting ways.

So diversity is good for recruitment, retention, innovation and growth, as well as being the right thing to do.

Making it happen, however, is not easy.

Making it happen

As Binna Kandola has argued persuasively in his excellent book, The Value of Difference, we are all hard wired to be biased to some extent and the challenge therefore is not to eliminate bias but to recognise that it exists and to construct ways to manage it.

We are now pretty clear on what the barriers to volunteering are. They range from the psychological – a mind-set which says that volunteering isn’t for me or the likes of me; or stereotypical assumptions on the part of volunteer managers or leaders that certain individuals won’t fit in to the culture of the organisation; to structural barriers like non-payment of expenses and inaccessible offices.

This notion of ‘organisational fit’ deserves much greater attention as it seems to be diametrically opposed to the idea of diversity and opening up an organisation to new and, let’s be honest, sometimes challenging perspectives and viewpoints.

If, as Woody Allen once said, ‘80% of success is showing up’, then if we deny someone the right to participate because we worry about their ‘fit’ we are not only denying them the chance to succeed but also undermining our own organisation’s chances of success.

The paradox of volunteering

Paradoxically, volunteering itself may lead to exclusion if we are not careful. One of the biggest advantages claimed for volunteering is its capacity to build stronger, more trusting communities and networks through the generation of social capital. But close-knit groups, which may be rich in social capital, may also exclude those from outside.

It is why policy makers have become interested in bridging social capital, as opposed to bonding social capital, which emphasises the role of volunteering in bridging across groups rather than reinforcing existing ties.

We must also be careful about assuming a one size fits all approach to diversity – perhaps the ultimate contradiction in terms, and in pushing a model which says that the only legitimate and valuable form of volunteering is undertaken through a formal organisation.

Much volunteering by groups excluded from more established organisations takes place within informal networks and self-help groups, and we should look to sustain and embrace this activity rather than assume automatically that these individuals should be directed into more mainstream organisations.

Access to volunteering fund

So what is to be done? Organisations should make every effort to ensure that they do not impose barriers (however unintentionally) on people who might want to volunteer. This includes the obvious, such as offering out of pocket expenses and accessible volunteering conditions, and the less obvious, such as providing flexible opportunities which fit around people’s often very complex lifestyles, including opportunities to work out of office hours and from home.

But government also has a role to play in ensuring that volunteering for all becomes a reality. The previous administration piloted an Access to Volunteering fund, based on the successful Access to Work fund, aimed at encouraging more people with disabilities to volunteer. The Fund offered organisations small amounts of money to make adjustments in the office or volunteering setting to ensure that barriers were removed. The pilot was a success and we are calling on the next administration to set up a similar fund for the future.

Volunteering for all

Breaking down barriers to volunteering for people with disabilities or to other groups who suffer discrimination will not be easy. But the prize is great.

Binna Kandola again:

Diversity is, amongst other things, the partner of creativity. We may work for diversity out of a sense of fairness, and we may be distracted by calls to compile a watertight ‘business case’. But the true business case for diversity – should you feel that the moral one is failing to knock down the requisite walls – is that without diversity, organisations cannot survive.

This is a message we all need to take to heart.

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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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