Goodwill Is Not Enough

    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
    sometimes frightening.

    “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
    place.

    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
    office.

    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
    further.

    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
    is minimised.”

    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
    situations.

    “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
    stopped?” CC

    * Name has been changed.

    (1) Investing in Volunteers – information from www.volunteeringengland.org.uk

    (2) Download the National Occupational Standards for Managing
    Volunteers from www.voluntarysectorskills.org.uk

    More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.