News and Comment

Valuing Volunteers – It’s time for a smarter approach to recognising and rewarding those who give up their time

Thursday 31 July 2014

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This week the Local Government Association proposed that community volunteers be given some kind of rebate in their council tax.  This proposal was rejected by some in the voluntary community, particularly the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, but embraced by others including the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action.

In my work as a doctor in a hospital I have seen just what a difference volunteers make.  Greeting patients and visitors and helping them find their way through the labyrinth of an unfamiliar hospital.  Taking papers, sweets and other treats for patients on wards who can’t reach the shops.  Manning the hospital café.  In fact, I have always thought people valued their help even more because they know they are volunteers.

And on a bigger scale, volunteers are vital to running a large network of charity shops that generate around £1 billion annually for good causes.  Samaritans and Childline, schemes for visiting and befriending isolated older people, kitchens and hostels for the homeless – the list goes on.

We are often described as the ‘time poor’ generation.  In such pressured times, the potential of volunteering is huge, but can, for many, feel like one commitment too many.  At ValueYou we think we need to find more ways to support volunteers and do more to recognise their contribution.

There are some who are wary of doing anything more than giving thanks to volunteers. Sometimes this unease arises from a natural – although largely unfounded – fear of straying into tricky areas of employment law.  For the most part, volunteering takes place on the understanding that the volunteer has undertaken to do something ‘to help others’, and to give them anything beyond a handshake or a pat on the back is unjustified.

I think we need to take a more intelligent view as to what motivates people to behave altruistically.  Human motivations are often complex and we mustn’t assume we know what these are, since individuals will commit to volunteering for different reasons. Some volunteers will say that they are influenced by the appreciation of those they help and from the positive response they will get from others when they hear about their good work.

In truth, we do understand how to recognise the work of a volunteer – it’s just a question of the urban environment presenting new challenges.  Imagine a small village where residents who give up their time to local causes are ‘known’ in the community – people would show them their appreciation where they can, whether it’s a free drink at the local pub or a couple of extra sausages thrown in at the butchers.

At ValueYou we have identified an enormous willingness amongst local businesses to show their appreciation as part of our volunteer recognition scheme. They do this by offering discounts and gift vouchers to volunteers who make a regular contribution in the local community. The challenge in a large urban community is anonymity.  ValueYou helped them to identify the volunteers. For businesses, it also makes commercial sense.

So, how else could we make our appreciation more tangible?  NHS organisations could start by providing a form of identification to allow their volunteers to access certain benefits like discounts at some restaurants – just like I can get with my NHS staff card.  Could commercial organisations who reward their best performing employees make small investments in staff who make an extra special contribution as part of business volunteer schemes?  Councils could offer free parking as well as council tax discounts.  The Government could mandate discounted rail fares.

And I would urge other organisations, public and private, to think about what else they could do to give a little back to those who give so much. If some people get involved in volunteering for what others consider the ‘wrong’ reasons then I am confident that they will soon come to value the experience itself much more than any material gain they might also be getting.

Dr Kieran Mullan is Founder and CEO of ValueYou and also works as junior hospital doctor.