Time Well Spent? A look at volunteering in the public sector

Time Well Spent? A look at volunteering in the public sector

In January 2019 the NCVO - National Council for Voluntary Organisations - published Time Well Spent, a major report looking at the volunteering experience. Now in a series of follow-up reports they are exploring some of the most intriguing themes and findings from the initial inquiry.


The report found that people who volunteer in the public sector often don’t even realise that’s what they’re doing. Hundreds of thousands of people each year give their time to school governance, the police services, hospitals, libraries, law courts and more. It all sounds like a great idea; volunteers often look to the public sector to give back to their local area or a service with which they have a personal connection. But while still reporting an overall feeling of helping people, there was higher negative feedback and lower satisfaction in nearly every single respect across the board.


So what can volunteer leaders do to make the experience better?


  1. Blurred lines between paid work and volunteer work

It is more likely for volunteers in the public sector to feel their work is ‘too much’ like paid work. Volunteers are more likely to be managed by paid staff, be given fixed hours, undertake work that used to be done by paid staff, have an overlap between work undertaken etc. The report shows that satisfaction decreases the more indistinct these boundaries are, and it makes sense. If a volunteer is being treated like a staff member, and the staff member receives remuneration, it’s no wonder that the unpaid volunteer might feel a little cheated. It is also challenging from an employment law perspective to not differentiate between different types of workers.


In some organisations – generally smaller ones like schools or libraries - volunteer roles are additional, they are there to enrich the work that an organisation undertakes. This means a distinct role with clear boundaries can be defined from the get-go. Often in these smaller public services (great example here in Cambridgeshire Libraries) volunteers are invited to work on their own terms, offering up their skills based on their personal interests and time commitment.


Obviously, the scale of an organisation is crucial in conversations like this. There’s no way that larger public services have the resources for such a high volume of volunteers to dictate their experience. The NHS, for example, has come under much criticism for using volunteers to paper over the gaps left by understaffing. This is reflected across the public sector: volunteers are likely to take a specific role in a pre-existing system, undertaking necessary work for the public service. A sector wide problem, volunteer team-leaders can still look at replicating as much of that small organisation positivity as possible: making sure that the role is defined and meaningful and that the volunteers are sufficiently appreciated for their crucial role.


  1. Funding cuts hit the public sector hard

It’s no big headline that funding cuts have had a negative impact on the public sector. But, it’s important to take a minute to think about how that trickles down into those volunteering. Not only might they be being brought in to undertake work that was previously done by paid staff, but they might feel pressured to give more time to the organisation, be frustrated that they can’t perform the job as well because the organisation hasn’t been able to afford training, or feel less supported by a management stretched thinly on time and resources.


If an organisation is using volunteers due to a lack of time and resources, the idea of then devoting additional time to training or communicating praise to volunteers might seem like a luxury. This is why it is so important to make sure that organisations are recruiting volunteers for the right reasons, and take time to understand how their role differs to that of paid staff. In smaller or charitable organisations, volunteers report feeling more like a part of the community. A well-trained volunteer helps organisations to create stronger supportive communities going forward.


Similarly, praising volunteers for their contribution is essential. It will take a lot more time to re-recruit volunteers (public sector volunteers are notably more likely to stop volunteering within 12 months, than those in charities).


  1. Volunteers are driven to make a difference

The survey concluded that most people volunteering in public sector organisations felt that they were being under-utilised. Most public sector volunteers believed there was too little communication, and their organisation could benefit from opening up different channels of communication for volunteers. There is definite scope for improvement!


If you are driven to improve the public sector take a look at some of the volunteering opportunities here.


And, if you lead volunteers in your public sector organisation and want to improve the experience for those driven people, the NCVO has created a brilliant table of questions you about improving your volunteering practice. You can read up on all of their findings in this report on their website.