'Volunteers must not be viewed as cheap labour', says Leeds Irish charity CEO

'Volunteers must not be viewed as cheap labour', says Leeds Irish charity CEO

In the month where volunteers are celebrated across Britain, Ant Hanlon, CEO of the Leeds Irish Health and Homes charity, outlines his views on the importance of volunteering to third sector services such as his own…

“This month we marked Volunteer Awareness Week and as CEO of LIHH I believe it’s so important that we value volunteers and the work they do alongside our frontline staff to help our service users achieve fulfilment and independence in their lives.

We recently went through our three yearly review of our Investors in People standard. As part of the discussion regarding diversity, the assessor asked me ‘what exactly is Irishness?’ in reference to the Irish in our name. As best I could, I explained that for us it was about providing a service to Irish people that respected their background, could connect with them straightaway through cultural and traditional mores, and on a human level could respond immediately to the  query ‘where are your people from?’

But it is also much more, it is about the values that we have developed and implemented as a service and an organisation which prides itself on being able to reach out to many communities who value the ‘Irish’ way in which we respond to them. I could see the assessor was still unsure as to whether I’d painted a picture she could relate to.

As part of the assessment a meeting was arranged with a group of our volunteers. Six people from very different and distant walks of life including service users. Their commonality was the land of their birth or ancestors.

The assessor asked them what brought them to volunteer at LIHH. They began to regale him with tales of experiences of their relatives and themselves - memories of signs on boarding houses of ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’, comments on “funny” accents but also the value of friendships formed with their country people.

The assessor explained that they didn’t know much about Ireland although had visited Dublin and Belfast – the response from the group that they were halfway to being Irish brought great laughter. The talking, the craic, spirituality, the sense of fun, the passion about looking after each other and the pride in volunteering for LIHH were phrases which were fed back to me following this meeting. It was also confirmed that the assessor finally ‘got’ what we meant by the Irishness in our service.

As shown here, volunteers can bring so much of their own experience and passion to the table for any organisation and can really be the topping on the cake for services. Capturing and utilising enthusiasm is a powerful experience.

However, we must not forget that volunteers need great support, training, development and management. They should not be seen, as I heard one person put it recently, as a ‘commissioner’s wet dream’, allowing services to vulnerable people to be run completely by people who give their time freely for a good cause.

The reality of the recent general election is that statutory services will be increasingly dismantled and tendered out to the voluntary sector over the next few years, offering not only opportunities for growth but also risks for services to race each other to the bottom. This race can unfairly start by misusing volunteers as a part of the tendering process to shore up services in the hope that the tender is secured at the lowest price.

If we as organisations are clear about the value volunteers bring to our service then we must be clear to commissioners and funders that volunteers have cost implications which must be funded so that proper and sustainable solutions for vulnerable people result.

Valuing people is what volunteering should be about; not using them as cheap labour. Surely that isn’t right is it?”

Click here for further information about Leeds Irish Health and Homes and its services.