With 2005 being promoted as the Year of the Volunteer by the Home
Office, CSV and Volunteering England, it’s to be hoped that those
who give their time for free will enjoy a positive experience over
the next 12 months.
Charities have always used volunteers. But it is now acknowledged
by organisations experienced in volunteer management that they need
to be supported throughout their placement, particularly when
working with vulnerable and challenging clients.
However, the best-practice scenario of induction, training and
ongoing supervision does not always happen. And when it doesn’t,
the consequences can be serious. For a volunteer, the situation may
become distressing or even dangerous. In June 2000, an inquiry into
the killing of untrained volunteer care worker Jonathan Newby in
1993 found there was “a total failure to provide a supportive
environment” for him. Newby was the only worker on duty at the
Oxford Cyrenian hostel when he was stabbed by a resident with
severe mental illness.
This is an extreme example of what can go wrong if volunteers are
left untrained and unsupported, but many volunteers can recount bad
experiences. Maggie Miller* is now a qualified youth worker, but
her 18 months as a full-time volunteer in her early 20s could have
put someone less robust off a caring profession for life. In
several placements at supported housing projects, she and other
unqualified volunteers were left alone in charge of young people
with multiple needs. It was, she says, progressively exhausting and
“In one place in Northamptonshire, me and a colleague, also a
volunteer, were left to work there all day and all night. Office
staff would meet up with us once a day, but we were working with
young people who were very troubled, self-harming, and there were
sometimes suicide attempts,” she recalls. “I remember after one of
these episodes asking casualty not to discharge a young person back
into my care.
“We all talked about it after it happened, and the feeling was that
it wasn’t OK. We were put at risk, but more importantly, the young
people were being put at risk.”
In some of her placements she knew young volunteers had entered
into sexual relationships with residents, and points out that when
volunteers have left home for the first time they are often needy
themselves. Without training and support, not every volunteer will
understand about boundaries in a setting where a major part of
their role is to befriend clients.
It’s a tension acknowledged by Richard Katona, volunteering
development manager at Depaul Trust, which places volunteers as
mentors to young people and prisoners due for release.
“You’re getting someone to undertake a role which may be nothing
that their previous life has prepared them for. Things that are
taken for granted by people in the sector, like professional
boundaries, may seem hard or even unfair to a volunteer,” he says.
Because discipline is an idea that charities fight shy of when it
comes to volunteers – who are after all there out of their own
goodwill – it is even more important for managers to have carefully
thought through the risk factors of their particular project before
recruiting, says Katona. Then when it comes to induction and
ongoing support, training can be tailored to the needs of the
project and the abilities of the volunteer.
As with many of the bigger charities, Depaul Trust has an induction
process and an established method of placement supervision. But
smaller charities may not have the resources to put these tools in
So it is potentially exciting that two initiatives to help
charities to manage volunteers have recently been launched.
Investing in Volunteers is a new award assessed by Volunteering
England.(1) But according to Barbara Regnier, its director of
consultancy and education, just 16 organisations have signed up so
far. The aim is to have 30 charities onboard by March.
Out of the thousands of voluntary organisations using volunteers
throughout the country, 30 does not seem a lot. Volunteering
England only has a certain capacity to audit in terms of the
numbers of experts it can draw on, added to which, Regnier admits
that the fee – a minimum of £1,000 plus VAT for organisations
with turnover of less than £1m – is likely to discourage
smaller charities from applying.
And Volunteering England is not targeting the bigger charities. All
of which leaves one wondering how effective the Investing in
Volunteers award is likely to be.
Another approach to encouraging good practice comes from the new
National Occupational Standards for Managing Volunteers. Developed
by the Voluntary Sector National Training Organisation (VSNTO) and
launched in April, the standards comprehensively address the
support and development of volunteers.(2)
The problem, says Angeline Hamilton at the VSNTO, is that the
standards come in a dauntingly big book, and nobody is using them
yet. “A lot of people have downloaded them and bought them, but if
they’re not using them, then what’s the point?”
However, a series of workshops has been developed to make the
standards more accessible, and it is hoped that as more volunteer
managers attend, they will dust down their copies when back in the
Miller’s sense of why things went so badly wrong at times during
her placements is that the charities she applied to were on tight
budgets and used volunteers so they could stretch their funding
At NCH, which works with 2,500 volunteers nationally, deputy
director of children’s services Moira Luccock is clear that though
managing volunteers is expensive in terms of staff time, there is
no other option. “It’s not cost-neutral, but there is no point
taking someone on without it, because you leave the volunteer
vulnerable and the child vulnerable,” she points out.
Certain types of volunteering, such as the independent visitor
scheme, will by their nature involve some risk. Although the
volunteer’s relationship with a young person begins in a supervised
setting, eventually they will spend time alone, and then, says
Luccock, it is the prior thought given by volunteer managers to
assess the risk at every contact, together with follow-up debriefs,
that work to keep a situation safe.
“Issues of sexuality can come up. There was a young woman I had
linked with a 14-year-old boy with learning difficulties, and we
had to manage it carefully because you have young people with
testosterone flying and an attractive young woman. The volunteer
has to be safe. The responsibility is on us to ensure that the risk
Although Miller emphasises that she had some of her most rewarding
life experiences while on her placements, and would not want
potential volunteers to be put off, her knowledge and experience as
a qualified youth worker means she still has concerns that
volunteers – and their clients – occasionally face difficult
“I believe you should never leave an untrained volunteer alone
overnight in a supported housing project with young people with
multiple needs. We needed training; we weren’t even sure what was
good and what was bad practice,” she says. “I think in some of the
smaller charities this kind of thing may still be happening,
because I ask myself: what would have made it change since I
* Name has been changed.