Stuart Etherington’s new year letter to the sector

I have written at the start of this new year to all NCVO members with some thoughts on the current situation for the voluntary sector. I would be most interested to hear your views.

Challenges ahead

While last year may have been politically tumultuous, we are in fact only at the beginning of what will be a most eventful period. For better or for worse, we live in interesting times.

Few doubt that the coming year will be, at best, a bumpy ride. Economically, we can look forward to lower growth and higher inflation, while political and media attention will be focused on the all-consuming task of Brexit.

In such challenging conditions it is easy to get distracted. The best advice anyone can offer, as ever, is to focus as far as possible on your mission and long-term goals. This will be particularly challenging for trustees with such uncertainty ahead in so many areas.

The challenges of Brexit are plain. For our part, NCVO will continue to provide all the information and support that we can on this area, while also feeding back your perspectives to the government.

The referendum decision showed that more than ever we need to be a voice for those heard in neither Whitehall nor the town hall. With a government preoccupied by Brexit, it is up to us to find the answers to the problems we face.

The political agenda

The political agenda remains in many ways unclear, though the prime minister’s guiding principle of a ‘shared society’ has provided us with some insight into her thinking. There are many positives to be taken from it, and I will reflect a little further on the concept below.

She also suggested the government will focus on people who are ‘just about managing’. This is welcome, but should not come at the expense of those who are simply not managing at all. A truly shared society involves everyone, including those in the very most vulnerable and difficult circumstances. That is where people are suffering most, where the most opportunity is lost, where our support is most needed. They will not be forgotten by our sector, and we must ensure that they are not forgotten by government.

Challenges in our sector

There are internal challenges in our sector. Things that, as people running voluntary organisations, we need to tackle. There are challenges common to all in the sector, and each of us will have our own particular challenges. We have not yet fully addressed the public’s concerns about fundraising, nor sufficiently strengthened governance within our sector. We must forge ahead with change in these areas so that the public can look to us with confidence when we offer solutions to the challenges now faced by the world.

But now more than ever is the time to look outside the boundaries of our own organisations and our own sector. To think about how we are part of a solution to the challenges we face on a national and even global scale.

Volunteering is a solution

One thing is very clear in my mind. That is that if we are to build a truly shared society – and the principle seems hard to object to whatever your political views – we cannot do so without volunteering. And our sector has the very best expertise in engaging volunteers and in transforming their desire to do good into real outcomes.

To take one example: our health and social care services are under great pressure. Social care in particular is consuming an ever greater proportion of local government spending. The trajectory appears unsustainable. Other services important to people and communities are sacrificed to make way for the essentials. And in just the last week, charities have rightly been at the forefront of drawing attention to the problems facing the NHS.

No one would claim that volunteering alone can bridge the rapidly increasing gaps between demand and supply here. But volunteering, both formal and informal, has to be part of the solution.

In this context we will inevitably run into tricky questions. When money is tight, tensions are invariably brought to the fore. Is it right for volunteers to do this role, or to run that service?

My answer is that I don’t believe in putting limits on what volunteers can do, especially not based on ideological arguments about the role of the state.

Voluntary is not the same as amateur

We need to be clear that voluntary is not the same as amateur. Volunteers already do many of the very toughest jobs in the country. Volunteers in the UK put themselves in the most dangerous of situations to save lives. Volunteers deal with the most harrowing of mental distress and the most challenging of personal circumstances. Volunteers make the most difficult of decisions about organisations and livelihoods.

And volunteers enable paid staff in our public services to focus more fully on their own roles, complementing and adding value to what they do. The expanding role of volunteers in our hospitals to help improve patient experience is testament to that.

Of course there are political and practical questions to resolve when finances are under pressure, services and jobs at stake. But I will have no truck with those who suggest that volunteering is a problem rather than a solution.

It was saddening that the former prime minister’s theme of a big society lost momentum, and became derided as simply a cover for cuts. The will behind it was real and the principles sound: to encourage and empower people to take control in their own communities. Perhaps it was always too ambitious to embark on this journey at a time of spending constraint. Theresa May is right to say it is not enough for the state to simply get out of the way, often it also has to help.

A national debate about volunteering in public services

But whoever is in charge, it is hard to conceive that we will be able to run public services in the future as we have in the past. We need a national debate about the role of volunteering in the future of our public services. And that debate has to be about more than simply delivering more publicly funded services.

As an analogy, in much of the last century, roads were built on a ‘predict and provide’ basis. Transport planners would study traffic levels, anticipate need for a road and then build it. But build a road, and the traffic increases to take advantage of it. The realisation slowly dawned that this method would in time see the whole country tarmacked. Now, the focus is on finding ways to help people out of their cars, on to buses, trains or bikes.

If only for financial reasons, a similar shift must happen in public services. We need a far greater focus on supporting and enabling communities and neighbours to look after each other, rather than waiting and hoping for a public service to do it. In the NHS and social care, as one health manager recently explained to me, what is needed are volunteers before the front door, to reduce demand and help keep people out of hospital, and volunteers at the back door, to help those who do need hospital treatment to settle back home. On both ends, this is not about delivering more, but using the capacity of communities to help meet and even reduce demand.

There are many charities and volunteers supporting our public services already. An estimated three million volunteer in health and some 500,000 in policing. We must step up our efforts as a sector and as a society to truly value volunteers, and look at ways to create new opportunities for volunteering to make a contribution.

To conceive of volunteers’ dedication as a temporary cover for cuts until the magic spending tap can be turned back on and publicly funded workers take their place is not only unrealistic, it does them a great disservice, and it overlooks the particular distinctive value that volunteers bring. Indeed even were finances not a challenge, we should still be involving volunteers in public services because of the unique value of the contribution they make.

Shared society

The prime minister’s assertion last week that ‘the cult of individualism has taken hold’ was clearly hyperbolic. In our sector alone, the tens of millions who give their time and money are proof that it has not. Last year we saw a significant increase in the number of young people volunteering. The notion of a society of solipsists bears little scrutiny. But that does not mean there is not more we can do to strengthen the bonds between us.

As a society we must encourage and celebrate those who take responsibility for and action in the world around them. Doing so is mission-critical, not just for our sector but for society. And we must not give way to those who accuse volunteering, or charities, of undermining the role of the state in providing services for the public, vital though that is.

Millions of us volunteer because we already have an instinct that it is the right thing to do. In a shared society, there are shared responsibilities, shared struggles and shared burdens. But there is also shared satisfaction, shared reward and shared joy. We can’t build a better society – a shared society, a big society, whatever: a better society – without nurturing this instinct.

This isn’t a call for more government-backed volunteering schemes. We have excellent ones already. If anything, it is time for the sector to renew its commitment to volunteering.

This means investing in the support that volunteering needs, both human and technical. Ensuring we are creating flexible opportunities that fit with people’s lives. Acknowledging that managing volunteers is harder than managing staff and valuing those whose role this is.

Ideally, we would make it as easy for someone to give their time as to give their money. It is no mean challenge but if we get just part of the way there we will be making a significant difference. Many are of course already doing excellent work in this area and I want to support and champion that.

The ripple effects of volunteering benefit us all

But we should encourage volunteering not just as a way to meet the goals of our own organisations, but because promoting participation in all its forms benefits our whole society.

Those who volunteer become more engaged across their lives. Their involvement and their trust begets the same elsewhere. Strengthened social networks mean healthier and happier lives. The ripple effects touch us all.

I believe all institutions in society, certainly those in the public realm, have a responsibility to open themselves up in this way and to actively nurture participation. And we should be modelling the very best practice in our sector.

Sometimes this may mean giving up a little control. But the rewards – greater capacity, strengthened connections with our roots, a cadre of committed advocates – are worth it. In some areas, not just in the voluntary sector but increasingly in the public sector, it will also quite frankly be the only way to maintain services.

It is only by working collaboratively and in partnership with the time and talents of people and communities that we can begin to meet the challenges faced in health and social care, not only in the current challenging economic climate but also to meet the demands that will be placed on the system in the future as we seek to ensure an ageing population can live healthily and independently.

In most cases volunteers are complementing and working alongside paid staff, not replacing them. When you to talk to NHS managers and staff they aren’t concerned about volunteers replacing their jobs, they are concerned about delivering the best care they can and see volunteers as part of the team. The challenge is how best to blend the time and talents of paid staff and volunteers.

Being bold for volunteering

In that context, we need to ensure that volunteering is managed well. That volunteers are adequately trained and supported. This must be a focus for all of us. Because we know that the surest predictor of whether someone carries on volunteering is how good their experience of it was. And for younger people in particular, we know one of the biggest sources of frustration is not knowing whether giving their time made a difference. We need to be aware that a good experience is increasingly interwoven with a sense of achievement, of having had an impact. So we need to ensure we are always reflecting back the difference that volunteering makes.

These won’t always be easy times. But I am determined that we will always be ambitious for volunteering in all its forms.

We will be relentless in promoting the value of volunteering for both individual and social goals. We know that volunteers bring a special added value to a service. We know that volunteering strengthens bonds between neighbours. We know that volunteering helps overcome prejudice. We know that volunteering creates the experiences and connections that lead to better lives.

This is a year in which I want NCVO and our sector to be bold for volunteering, and I would like you to join me.


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Stuart Etherington Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

21 Responses to Stuart Etherington’s new year letter to the sector

  1. Karen Lawton says:

    Can’t agree more. The 200+ volunteers who work with us at Mindsong are absolutely vital. They not only break down barriers between care homes and their surrounding communities, but work as advocates, combat loneliness (for both resident and volunteer) and are building a sustainable model for others to emulate. We put a lot of effort into training, support and integration within the organisation and have volunteers of all ages and with a dizzying array of skills and experience. Our volunteers managers are amazing and I completely take your point that managing volunteers is a different skill set, but a deeply rewarding one.

  2. Tess Kingham says:

    Couldn’t agree more that we need a rethink of doing things differently across many areas of public service and volunteers are a fundamental part of the solution. I can also appreciate though concerns that people have that politicians might grab at opportunities to use non paid volunteers as a sneaky way of chopping funding to essential services but I think this is something to be alert to and ready to react on a case by case basis. It’s a sad reflection of how far we’ve commodified everything in our society that somehow working for no financial return has a lower status than a paid for position, perceived value comes with associated money. Yet from the early days of the movement for free healthcare, trades unions, women’s rights etc. these were achieved almost exclusively through ‘volunteers’. Interesting too that terminology has strong connotations – simple ‘volunteer’ sparks a certain reaction (unjustified) with some people ,a bit woolly and slightly amateur perhaps, while activist, pro bono lawyer, campaigner, lifeboat crew member etc. not perceived in that way but still volunteers

  3. A rather long new year letter about volunteers but nothing about the cost of organising them. All who want the services and help of volunteers need financial resources to supervise and run this most valuable of resources.

  4. I noticed you are concerned about challenges.

    I have started a registered charity called CiaO Foundation (Challenge is an Opportunity).

    Can we help you?

    • Lauren says:

      Thanks for your interest in helping. The challenges Stuart discusses in this post are challenges for the voluntary sector as a whole, and individual charities will no doubt have specific, related challenges too. Perhaps you could use an online network such as CharityConnect [] to find out more about the needs of other charities in the sector and let them know more about your services if they wish.

      As a newly registered charity, you may be interested in the NCVO Knowhow Nonprofit website [], which offers practical support to charities on a range of topics – you may also be interested in NCVO membership [] which offers a range of benefits and support to charities, or in signing up for our email updates [] to get the latest sector news and advice.

  5. Terry Clay says:

    Fully endorse Stuart’s arguments about the crucial role of volunteers and volunteering but question the applicability of a ‘health manager’ defining what volunteer roles should be.

    As Tess Kingham suggests, volunteers and voluntary organisations have initiated and reshaped services, not always in ways that the establishment might have expected.

    I would also like to point out to John Bothamley that there are organisations that have only volunteers to manage their volunteers and a case can be made for avoiding the employment of paid staff as a risk to the voluntary ethos (a unorthodox view I realise).

  6. Paul Mitchell says:

    Volunteering within public services is a very tempting thing for governments to look upon as a way of contributing towards costs. That becomes a significant issue when the government runs policies that distribute wealth unfairly, for example refusing to increase the tax burden on the richest whilst allowing the relative tax burden for the poorest to increase. Add to the mix failure to proportionality attend to tax evasion whilst cracking down on potential benefit cheats and you have a heady mix.

    Volunteering in the public sector is not, in itself, a thing to cause concern. The deliberately poor funding of the public sector is, and volunteering in that context serves to support the stripping of resources.

  7. Michael Osborne says:

    I agree with your comments. Also Charities have many volunteers working for them and doing sterling work. However the social work that many undertake like keeping people out of hospital and keeping them in good health is not easy to put a price on or to convince funders that you have done good work helping the NHS or social services. When you have to justify your use of a grant to a funder or prospective funder it is very difficult. The Charity can also be restrained by the terms of the grant for instance your help being confined to one county, There is good news that some research shows that when people see, here or read about a good action, it encourages them to do good. What a good world it would be if good deeds are passed on. By the same rule bad deeds also multiply.

  8. Rob Jackson says:

    I am heartened to read Sir Stuart’s letter. These are issues I have been striving to get taken more seriously for many years and Sir Stuart has put them front and centre in the sector’s thinking as the new year gets underway.

    I have also blogged in response to the letter and you can view this at

  9. We have been aware that services often use volunteering as a useful tool for progression for their service users, both through improving self esteem, but also by ‘upskilling’ people to improve employability. We work hard to help our services capture this process, to find out more please read my blog

  10. This all sounds very good. Local Government would love it. But please can you also persuade Grant Makers to see community social care undertaken by the third sector qualifies as’fundable’ and not turned down as ‘statutory responsibility’ and therefore not fundable.
    Working in this field can prove difficult with volunteers as when supporting vulnerable people it is essential that workers are always reliable. You cannot undertake this kind of work with casual voluntary workers nor expect them to take personal responsibility in all complicated cases. That is not to say that we do not benefit greatly from volunteers but I am very anxious that this is not seen as the way of providing all social care. There is still a need for specialism and experience within the third sector, and a recognition from the statutory sector that this exists and should be utilised, not dupicated, even though sometimes it has a competative cost.

  11. John Maynard says:

    I would agree with most of the comments made. Due to the huge numbers of people who volunteer I’m not convinced that ‘Dave’s Big Society’ is lost – in fact I’d see it as quite the opposite.
    Volunteering works both ways. Not only does it help others but it clearly helps those who contribute by keeping them occupied, allows them to use their life skills, their brains, socialising skills as well as keeping them physically active.
    Money is, and will always be, an issue in everything we do and there is insufficient to do all the things we regard as essential. Volunteering is a way of supporting others in a cost effective way to do things that otherwise would not be possible.
    More people should be encouraged to contribute.

  12. Simon Harris says:

    I think (hope?) everyone in the sector would welcome any extension to the contribution made by volunteers across a wide range of activities. However, what no one seems to have mentioned is the very real challenges many organisations face in recruiting and retaining volunteers, compared to the past. The pool of people able to give sustained, regular commitments to voluntary work is being squeezed by several conflicting forces: demographics, a tougher and more punitive social security regime, changing or increasing care commitments and political and economic pressure to get as many people as possible into work (which will only increase with post Brexit immigration controls). Ironically these pressures are most acute in more deprived areas where the needs are also, often, greater. Until this is recognised and there is a policy shift to promote volunteering, reduce the barriers and support people to volunteer I fear that in many places the VS’s ability to deliver public services will actually diminish.

  13. Chris Reed says:

    Having been around the volunteering and volunteer management profession for approaching 15 years I think this is the first time I have seen NCVO take such a prominent position on volunteering and I have to say it was a pleasure to see. Sir Stuart is absolutely right, context is everything. What may have been seen as ‘acceptable’ for volunteers to engage in previously may not be seen in the same light today and equally what may have been seen as ‘unacceptable’ may now be perfectly ok. However who defines what’s acceptable or not? Volunteering is such an individual choice, who should prevent people from coming together in support of a cause, even if it’s one the state previously funded and supported? People volunteer to meet a need, whether personal or societal, sometimes that turns into something very organized (a charity perhaps) and sometimes even the state take the activity on (look at the NHS) however this isn’t some form of linear development where volunteering stops just because the state has ‘taken over’. It is and indeed for me should be more of circle where the role of volunteers increases and decreases based upon the external context. Yes we need a debate, yes things need to be appropriately resourced and supported, even managed but lets not forget we don’t need perfection in order for volunteering to happen. People will give of their time regardless and we should encourage, embrace and celebrate that!

  14. Alan Norton says:

    I volunteer with two different charities and have held a Trustee role in both over the years. Neither are very involved with health or social care. One is a hobby type of charity and gets sufficient volunteers. The other is a national charity run seemingly like the public sector and struggles to get enough volunteers.
    So I have spent lots of time trying to figure out the difference. Needless to say, it is not black and white, but I think what is missing in the second charity is something that Sir Stuart hardly touches on, and only 2 or 3 comments refer to.

    People volunteer to get benefit for themselves.

    A big chunk of that benefit is the satisfaction of achieving something – often that is something that benefits other people. Other benefits they get include the enjoyment of socialising and working with other people; getting the feeling of being appreciated; learning and gaining experience; getting out of the house; etc.

    So while a lot of what has been said is, in my opinion, not incorrect, I think it is very easy to look at what is needed to be done and tell volunteers what to do and how, and this is likely true of public sector situations. Whereas starting with what is required to be achieved and allowing volunteers to contribute their skills and experience to work out what to do and how will undoubtedly produce more committed volunteers, and possibly an unusual method and successful outcome, as has been referred to in one comment.

    I think the last comment from Chris Reed touches on this view “…. we don’t need perfection ….” – we often don’t even need consistency, if people are achieving what is required in a way that is unique to them, perhaps this is totally acceptable, and very satisfying for them.

    So, for me, the route to getting more volunteers is working to ensure that the volunteers get sufficient benefit from their efforts, to encourage them to come back again and again, and to bring their friends !! 🙂

  15. It is a great to see such a strong and bold statement recognising the contribution made by volunteer managers on a day to day basis in building a society that works for us all. The Association of Volunteer Managers looks forward to continuing to work closely with NCVO to promote the value of volunteering and ensure that it is properly resourced.

  16. I cannot but envy organisations that find no difficulty in recruiting (and retaining) trustees and volunteers, and I send my best wishes to all working away in the voluntary sector. My experience of the last 39 years as head of a small community-based charity aimed at helping young musicians is no one (including parents and mature musicians) has offered their services, and elected trustees rarely last the course. However, due to the work of those trustees that have supported me and who have lasted throughout the life of the charity, we have survived. As for ‘pushy-parents’, that’s another story!

  17. Fred Rule says:

    I agree with the comments in Sir Stuart Etherington’s letter. However we would love to see some of the large number of volunteers being mentioned. We struggle to find volunteers. We operate a community transport service in Berkshire and all we find is people wanting to “give something back” but they want paying. We employ a number of people and cannot afford any more. We need help finding those people who want to “give something back”. We are willing to pay for the service, if it was “not for profit” as most agencies are. We provide full training to National Standards and this is reflected in our high quality service. It needs a national campaign, we locally have no luck these days in finding these people.

  18. Christine Pattison says:

    Volunteering per se is not a concern, but there is a case for applying some caution within the context of austerity cuts or whether increased use of volunteers supports a particular political ideology.

    Is it OK to ask volunteers to deal with disruptive behaviour and deliver personal assistance at a day centre? is it OK to ask volunteers to conduct return from missing interviews with young people? Many people will no doubt think ‘yes’, given the right training or expertise. But people have trained to do these things as part of rewarding (in all senses of the word) careers. We can see all sorts of jobs being stripped out of the work market place not least because of technology. People are having to think of taking the sorts of jobs hey would not previously have considered. Could volunteers add to the pressure? Don’t get me wrong, volunteers do great things. But the way forward has to be plotted in a way that factors in the wider context and a changing society and labour force; some are talking about a citizen income which would recognise the contribution of people to their community for whom there is no longer a job in the way we recognise now. It’s certainly not simple.

  19. Laura J Welti says:

    Whilst it is always good to hear people being positive about volunteers Sir Stuart omits at least two key factors that make volunteer-delivered statutory services a considerably less positive move than he suggests.

    Firstly, I get the distinct impression that both he and most of the respondents so far are rarely users of volunteer-delivered statutory services. If they did, there would be at least some contribution regarding the service users’ viewpoint!

    As a Disabled person who also runs a charity, I do not want my neighbour to know the most intimate details of my life and I do want the Independence, Choice and Control over how my life is lived that most UK adults have – as do the vast majority of our members – something state reliance on volunteers cannot provide.

    Secondly, to express caution about statutory services is in no way a call for ceasing all volunteering, as the structure of that paragraph implies.

    Thirdly it is a fallacy that,
    “The trajectory (of our health and social care provision to date) appears unsustainable” and that
    “increasingly in the public sector, it will also quite frankly be the only way to maintain services.”

    Government has access to the means required for statutory services that meet our current needs and the future increase in demand upon them. They just choose not to secure them e.g. the bulk of the so-called welfare provision in this country is in fact a subsidy to the private sector so that it can get away with paying an actual ‘living wage’; as a colleague has indicated above, we could also have income tax thresholds that represent a fairer sharing of the costs of running the country; passing legislation that makes big business ‘pay its way’ in the UK, rather than letting it get away with paying no tax because they’ve stuck the head offices of their provision in a tax haven, such as basing the financial department in Ireland or Luxembourg for a UK retail empire.

    Fourthly, statutory services are just that – services that government(local or national) is legally obliged to deliver fairly, in a suitable environment, consistently and in a timely manner. This cannot be delivered by relying on a far greater proportion of volunteers in the services’ workforce.

    Finally, local governments (and probably central government but I know less about that) is already manipulating the recognised value of volunteering, personal and community ‘resilience’ to ‘dress up’ their budget decisions and divest themselves of responsibility to provide services – services, by the way, that we have paid them to provide i.e. through our taxes. If the taxes aren’t sufficient government needs to address what, and who, it prioritises and what level of contributions it requires from it’s citizens.

    Make no mistake, financially our statutory sector is in a race to the bottom when it comes to what they fund and how they fund it. Changes dressed up as necessary due to the economic climate will not disappear once the world economy works better; they will be here to stay.

  20. Katherine Goatley says:

    I am a Trustee of a small charity, set up a few years ago to meet a particular need in our area that was not being met – I also help deliver a highly professional service by qualified practitioners as a volunteer. The need for the service is indicated by the ever increasing number of referrals from the over stretched ‘professionals’ working within statutory services.

    Am I the only volunteer who is beginning to feel cynical about the use of voluntary organisations to provide much needed services? I am of a charitable disposition, not particularly materialistic – I would work for free, but I need to pay bills! I need to buy food!

    There is only so much that volunteers can do because the reality is that the majority of people need to earn a living. Then they can also pay taxes and contribute to the funding of good services to meet the needs of the population with all the positive knock on effects – economic, social and well being.

    The opportunity to volunteer is good – within reason. I will continue to volunteer because I am motivated to offer support to the people who use the services of the charity. However, I am weary with the role of Trustee – the never ending trying to get funding, ensuring there is good governance, complying with irritating (albeit necessary) and expensive health and safety issue, supporting other volunteers to support other volunteers. No wonder charities find it hard to recruit Trustees. There is the satisfaction of contributing and giving to the community, but there is a limit to what is sustainable.