Is social care ripe for volunteering?

The coalition government is pushing for more volunteering in social care, but will this encroach on the domain of the paid workforce? Sally Gillen reports

The coalition government is pushing for more volunteering in social care, but will this encroach on the domain of the paid workforce? Sally Gillen reports

The prime minister’s grand vision for a Big Society will see everyone, including service users, volunteers, and carers, encouraged to take on active roles in their communities including the provision of services. As part of the flagship policy, launched in July 2010, David Cameron wants people to come together to run local services such as libraries or bus services, or volunteer to provide care to vulnerable people.

The theme of active citizenship runs through the clutch of social care policies published by the coalition government in the past year, including the Adult Vision for Social Care, which says: “We need a Big Society approach to social care – one that gives people the power to support each other and meet the challenges they face.” And last week, Skills for Care’s workforce development strategy specifically called on social care professionals to build community capacity in areas such as volunteering.

Volunteering has a long history in social care. For many it is a stepping stone to paid employment within the sector, an opportunity to gain some experience of the work before pursuing a qualification in social care or social work. But the huge expansion of volunteering proposed by the Big Society plan at a time of spending cuts has prompted concern that volunteers could be used to replace the paid workforce.

“There is no doubting the commitment and value that volunteers can offer, but public services must be delivered by trained, qualified staff who are part of a stable workforce. Volunteers cannot be used as a cut price alternative,” argues Unison’s national officer for social work, Helga Pile.


The skills needed to work in social work cannot be underestimated, Pile adds. Trained, qualified workers are able to make very complex judgments around risk – “spotting the danger signs that volunteers could easily miss,” she says. They also benefit from the experience and knowledge of colleagues and, crucially, they are totally accountable to local people.

Professional manager for England at BASW – The College of Social Work, Ruth Cartwright, argues that the government’s emphasis on using volunteering poses a risk. “The Big Society represents a threat because those who run social care and make top level decisions appear to have little idea of what social workers actually do,” she says. “Volunteers could be drafted in to do things social care no longer does such as shopping, cleaning houses, washing nets. That would be OK and indeed is often happening already,” she says.

“However, they could also be called upon to deliver direct, hands-on care and that is where there is the potential for problems and for people getting out of their depth and both service user and volunteer being exploited.”


At CSV, the UK’s largest volunteering charity, director for full-time volunteering Is Szoneberg says volunteers should not be expected to take on levels of accountability and responsibility accepted by those in paid jobs. Volunteers, she says, should protect themselves and the service users they are placed with by seeking advice in situations where they may be asked to perform a task that falls outside the scope of a volunteer.

“Our volunteers do a whole range of things but sometimes – and personal care would be the most common area – they may asked to do something that requires medical or professional input and that’s inappropriate,” says Szoneberg.

Organisations such as CSV work to protect their volunteers from being placed in situations where they could be at risk of personal liability, which in itself is an obstacle to those who may wish to use them as a cheap option.

Volunteering unappealing to many

For Pile this is one factor among many that make volunteering in social care dangerous and unappealing: “Not only is the push to get more volunteers into social care, including social work, wrong, it is unsustainable. It’s harder than ever to recruit volunteers.”

Cartwright agrees: “There isn’t a huge number of potential new volunteers out there. Many people are already volunteering and recent research indicates that others are not that keen on doing so. They are often too busy working long hours for poor pay and trying to hang on to their jobs.

“In 2005 the then social care minister Stephen Ladyman spoke of an ‘army of volunteers’ in social care to help as the population became older and more people needed care and support and they have never, ever materialised and nor will they now.”

‘Volunteers have given services a new vitality’

Volunteering has become a way of life for Alexandra Pflueger (above, right, pictured practising signing with service user Emily Steer) who signed up with CSV as a full-time volunteer to explore her interest in becoming a social worker.

In return for a £75 allowance and a place to live, she works with two women with learning disabilities, helping them cook and clean and accompanying them on shopping trips, and helping one of the women travel to her voluntary job in a charity shop. Towards the end of the week she works with three other adults with learning disabilities at a stable, where the jobs include painting fences and clearing dung.

“I’m from California and I’m thinking about going into social work and so I wanted to get some first-hand experience,” she says. “I also wanted to see a different part of the world so this was a good opportunity.”

Three months into the role, she has not yet been asked to do something that she has felt beyond her remit. She had an in-depth interview before becoming a volunteer to find out the types of tasks she would be prepared to do.

The voluntary placement is arranged by CSV in partnership with Norfolk Council, where social worker Chris Field, from one of the adult learning disability teams, works alongside volunteers who deliver services for her clients.

“The volunteers have a vitality and fresh approach that you don’t get with the same staff going in. I also think the relationship between the volunteers, who tend to be around the same age, is more equal,” says Field. “We were clear that volunteers should not do personal care. For me as a social worker it is helpful to have volunteers because they absorb a lot of the day-to-day issues, which means the women don’t always see me as their first point of contact.

“A lot of the issues are personal, perhaps about relationships, and the women prefer to talk to someone their own age. I don’t get as many calls from the women but I don’t see that as a negative. “I suppose there could be a danger that the relationship is changed but I’m updated weekly on what’s happening and if there are any issues I’m told about them.”

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