Is volunteering free…?

After reading a report about volunteering in Harrogate…

Harrogate Advertiser article – Volunteering isn’t free

…it is interesting to think that some people believe that volunteering is a free option. We are, I think, lucky that the County and District Councils that we deal with recognise the real cost of volunteering, but many charities and community groups often overlook this cost in their planning. Volunteers need and warrant as much training as full time staff. This comes at a cost. Volunteers need management support and this comes at a cost. Volunteers need resources, computers, working material, desk space – this comes at a cost. Volunteers should be paid out of pocket expenses and this too comes at a cost. All in all volunteering is not a cheap option, however the dedication, skill and enthusiasm – as well as not having to cover the main costs of employment – means volunteers give hundreds of times greater value than their cost.

It is worth however reminding organisations to properly budget for volunteers and to make sure they are supported with all the tools to do the job.

Good value yes ….. but never free!


Damn Amateurs!

I was chatting to a few people the other day about volunteers and what they do. One of the assembled stated that he did not want to be a volunteer and thought that “damn amateurs” had no place in some sectors. I was restrained in my reproach but, when thinking about it, it is an interesting point. What do damn amateurs do? What is an amateur? There is an inference that an amateur is untrained, unskilled and something of a “dabbler”. As a volunteer in some walks of life, and working with volunteers in my day job, I am surrounded by experts in their field and most of them are rather proud of the amateur status. There is something adventurous about it. Often organisations that use both volunteers and paid staff find the workforce driven by passion not financial gain and this makes for a dedicated, integrated and sometimes challenging workplace.

I have in the past worked with amateurs at all levels who deliver a service based on their existing skills and knowledge at such a level that the organisation that they volunteer for could never afford their “professional” rate. Yet they work doggedly and with as much drive and enthusiasm as any bonus-driven professional.

Last summer my mother was taken ill and I had to call for an ambulance. Within moments a medic arrived and, having 20 years experience in A&E in this country and others, was able to support, check, and reassure my mother. He was able and experienced at life saving. Having left the health service to pursue a new career he felt his skills were still of value. I can vouch that they were. He was a “damn amateur” but one of many that save lives day in day out when the professionals are not able to.

So I feel privileged to deal with “damn amateurs” because the way the future is looking we all may need to rely on them a little more.


innovationWhy is the charity sector so vital for Bucks? The term charity covers a multitude of sins. Maybe “sins” is not quite the right term as many charities have a hugely beneficial and altruistic drive. There is a tendency to assume that charities do important work that is not done by the state. They are steady, amateur and well meaning. Isn’t it all about village hall bring and buy sales, cream tea fund raising and rattling tins outside supermarkets?

I listened to the radio the other day and heard a report from Medical Detection Dogs based in Great Horwood in Bucks. They are working on a revolutionary use of dogs to sniff and detect cancer cells as part of a screening process. Medical Detection Dogs have a long record of success using dogs to detect cancer. This is truly revolutionary, and it got me thinking about charities and how they lead, how they revolutionise, innovate, challenge and arguably change the world. Why? How is it that with all the millions of pounds in state and business sectors the world is often changed by unfunded, passionate amateurs? I don’t just mean Oxfam, Amnesty, or Medecins Sans Frontieres, although the headline list of these life changing organisations may be sufficient to make the point. I am referring to the world in which people see a problem and, frustrated often by lack of anyone else solving it, get up and do it for themselves for no financial benefit.

Innovation comes in different forms. We have charities inventing games to help people manage debt, hi tech solutions to help the elderly live safely in their homes, and great innovation is going on in the social service sector. Innovation in this sector is no less impressive. People, amateurs, who see solutions where the state has not, from opening simple cafes with support services provided by volunteers, using farming as a form of rehabilitation to innovative transport schemes and low carbon solutions.

In Bucks there are around 2,500 charities. My colleagues at Community Impact Bucks have had the privilege to have helped many of them start and thrive, and continue to provide support –  but when we consider the innovation in the charity sector it is astounding.  What drives innovation? Usually a passion to see things better for others, despite no funding or very little, ignoring all those that say it is impossible – and a great imagination.

If you want really impressive innovation look not just to business but to the great ideas in the charity sector where (with some effective support) amateur passion and little or no money can solve problems often too big for business and state.