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Promoting Quaker values in Business and the Workplace

Minute of Q&B NxD Gathering 2013: Volunteers and Employees Working Together

1/2 July 2013

22 of us have gathered together to explore issues arising from our many different experiences of the voluntary sector (including the Society of Friends), with a particular focus on two questions:

  • Is it possible to run any significant enterprise run solely by volunteers?
  • How do organisations change when they start to take on paid employees?

In our introductory session on the first evening we began to share thoughts about the meaning of volunteering, and noted that it might range from specific tasks for short periods to the governance of large charities or paid work extending into voluntary time. We also noted that, as volunteers or paid staff, what we work at needs to have meaning for us, and that meaning may be different from person to person.

In the morning of our full day together, we heard helpful contributions from three speakers. Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of Britain Yearly Meeting, spoke of the way Quaker work is dependent on both volunteers and paid staff in the UK and across the world. "Part of Quakerism is to empower people to give service in the world". We noted that volunteers need clearly defined tasks, expectations and governance, just as paid staff do. He left us with the question: is there now any difference between a good employer and a Quaker employer?

Tracey O'Brien from the Birmingham Voluntary Service Council helped us think about the changes that have taken place since the 1980s when voluntary organisations have been encouraged to become service providers for the public sector with all that that implies, including an increase in paid employees. She noted that alongside an increase in volunteering, the nature of problems being presented for assistance has become more complex and demanding. At the same time the paid workforce in the voluntary sector has increased by 6 per cent. She left us with the question: are we using volunteers as cheap labour?

And finally Dawn Pawlett of Acorn children's Hospice spoke of the importance of voluntary fundraising, as well as work, for a hospice that needs 5 million pounds a year to run. She emphasised the selection and training of volunteers and particularly that there should be a role description to distinguish it from a job description.

With the panel of speakers, we reflected on our country's changing demographic and its effect on volunteering, the effect on ownership of responsibility for work once people are employed, and we noted that many people - particularly the young - cannot now commit to a 3 year term of service because they don't know where they will be. Many people are disenchanted by the notion of the Big Society because it has been allied to public spending cuts.

The afternoon groups have given us the chance to express our enthusiasm for volunteering, despite the difficulties that might arise through lack of funding or status.

In the feedback from small groups we noted the spectrum of organisations in the voluntary sector, some attracting a huge number of volunteers dependent on loyalty to a charismatic leader, some steering close to the wind in terms of conformity to legislation, others heavily regulated where volunteers may become disenchanted. We thought about rights and obligations in voluntary work, and the need for respecting and understanding expectations and motivations on both sides of the volunteer equation. Volunteers need to be treated with courtesy and consideration, and expectations dealt with collaboratively. Training should be an essential part of the contract between the volunteer and organisation.

We are struck by the increasing professionalism of volunteers and vol organisations . We would wish to seek to engage with younger volunteers. We suggest that employees do not mix a paid and voluntary role, but paid workers work alongside volunteers very successfully. We think there will be more volunteers offering briefer service, and some will volunteer out of necessity in the absence of paid work.

We are aware that the current trends in volunteering have implications for our local Quaker meetings, and will take the thoughts from this conference back with us.

Christine Kell
Member, Quakers and Business Group