NCVO chief: why the shape of volunteering has to change

NCVO chief: why the shape of volunteering has to change

Karl Wilding is chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. During a wide-ranging interview given before the coronavirus crisis, and with Rotary’s Volunteer Expo still on track, he gave an interesting insight into how the nature of volunteering has to change. More so now, with the coronavirus pandemic.

Karl, you’ve been in the job as chief executive of NCVO since last June, how has it been?


There has been a lot of goodwill towards me and towards the organisation. I have a fantastic platform to build out from our previous chief executive (Sir Stuart Etherington) who did a great job of running NCVO and who has bequeathed me a stable, financially-strong organisation to develop. One of the great things about my job, is that with 15,000 members you go out to meet them and talk to them, and hear about what they do. It is nourishment for the soul when you come across people who are running organisations on fumes. And while sometimes they must see what the worst of humanity is all about, they are also the best of what humanity is all about in terms of how they bring people together and try to find solutions to some of the terrible things we read about.


There is a saying on one of the NCVO posters which says “the world is changed by charity”. Discuss.


When you read about charities, it can sometimes feel like them and us. It can feel a bit like there are a group of organisations over here and then there is the public at large with volunteers out there. My feeling is that charities are the vehicle by which you and me come together to change the world. So when we say the world is changed by charity, I don’t say it is changed by charities, I think it is changed by the millions of actions which you and I do every day – and that can be signing a petition or a direct debit, or giving some time – and those are the things are what make life worth living. It is when people come together for the public at large, those are the things that matter. When we talk about the voluntary sector, quite often we mean by voluntary, volunteering, people giving up their time. But we forget sometimes that the voluntary sector is people coming together because nobody is telling them that they have to, nobody is forcing them to. There is something special about when people come together of their own volition to do stuff to change the world. I think it is part of the human condition.

We had Storm Ciara at the weekend, and I saw a video of the lifeboat leaving Hastings and almost tipping over in the stormy seas. Now some of the reactions on social media was that this was a charity doing that, but my reaction was that actually, these were volunteer. I think there is something wonderful about the human condition. That was an extreme case where people were doing something not because they were being paid or forced to, but there is something about us as human beings which cares about the world and the people around. It is very easy in these difficult times to be cynical about the human spirit, or about the world we live in when we read in the newspapers every day about divisions in society, but there is still something brilliant about us all. And where I feel really positive, whether it is about Rotary or other charities, is that we are vehicles for people to come together and to multiply those individual acts of kindness.


NCVO is it is centenary year, how has it been?


Edward Birchall, our founder, was killed from wounds sustained in battle on the Somme during the First World War on the Somme. He left a legacy of £1,000 to his friend SP Grundy, and he said ‘I want you to take this money and do some of the things we talked about’. And from that seed, there was an organising committee after the First World War about how social work should be organised. From that seed NCVO was born because social work was an emerging discipline just after the First World War and there was a sense that the state couldn’t do everything, so who is stepping into the breach to co-ordinate everything?

NCVO has done many things over the years. We built thousands of village halls in the inter-war period which are now looked after by Action With Communities in Rural England. Immediately after the Second World War, our work around giving people help and advice was the start of what became Citizens Advice. Help the Aged came out of the Old People’s Welfare Committee that was part of NCVO.

However, we are a very different organisation from the one which was established 100 years ago, and that is only right. We have had a year of celebrating the past and celebrating everything that is good about charities and volunteering, but we have now got to look forward.


As for the organisation today, it’s made up of 15,000 members and around 100 staff.


That’s right. When we talk about change and modernisation, I came to NCVO in 1998 as a research assistant. At the time we had 600 members and we were celebrating our 80th birthday around then. We probably had 100 staff too. We have gone on from supporting 600 organisations to 15,000, and the organisation at that time had a Government grant of around £1.5 million a year, now we don’t have anything.


So how are you funded?

It’s a mix of membership subscriptions. We have a relationship with another organisation, the Charities Aid Foundation, where they make a contribution to us every year. We own our building, and generate income from that.

But the point is this – and this is why I like the Volunteer Expo and what it is trying to do – we should be proud as a sector of our roots and values. But we should never wallow in them. We shouldn’t preserve them in aspic, and constantly thinking about how are we relevant to the future.

You hear this narrative that today people don’t care about causes and they don’t care about others or the community around them. And you hear the suggestion that young people don’t care. I think it is rot. I don’t believe it. The challenge we have, the challenge that Rotary has, is how do we make sure that we are relevant to how people want to change the world around them? If the world is still changed by individual acts of kindness, by people getting involved and doing things together, then we have got to make sure that we are relevant to them, relevant to how they want to change the world and how they want to do things. Everyone is carrying round a pocket computer, or a mobile phone, with them which allows them to do things like renew their library books without going into the library, it enables them to do their banking. That is all very good, but even more challenging that has led to a culture where people not only expect to be able to do that on their phone but they also expect an instant response.

When it comes to supporting the cause that you believe in, there are behaviours such as shaping. People have similar expectations of us and how we respond to their desire to change the world. If you want to volunteer, why can’t you go on an App and find out how? People will not want to receive a letter in the post or an appointment three weeks later, they will want to do the transaction side immediately. We have to be modern and relevant.


Volunteer Expo is a new thing for Rotary. What are your thoughts about Volunteer Expo and what do you hope it is going to achieve?


I didn’t need much encouragement to get involved with Volunteer Expo. If I am right that people still want to change the world, I believe people want to do things but they are not always sure how to do it. Charities make it more difficult for volunteers to change the world than it should be. I don’t think the public always understand us very well, and conversely I’m not always sure we understand the public that well.

What I like about Expo is that this is about us trying to talk to people about the opportunities they have got, and the different ways of getting involved. I hope it is about presenting the modern face of charities and volunteering. What I really like the fact that Rotary is doing it. Before getting involved with Volunteer Expo, my experience of Rotary before was being invited to speak at my local Rotary club, which was a very pleasurable experience. But it is not an organisation I would have necessarily associated with wanting to come out and talk about volunteering in the future. So I feel very positive that Rotary is showing leadership and thinking about how do we get the next generation of people involved in Rotary or, indeed, other organisations.

Where I sense there is an opportunity, but also a potential frustration, is that you do see people getting involved with the causes they believe in to change the world, but sometimes we could help them make a bigger difference if we could connect them with some of the existing organisations and structures. It is a very clichéd example – a very visible example is what happened after the awful fire at Grenfell Tower when everybody descended on the area in the immediate aftermath because they wanted to do something. All of a sudden you added to the problem because everyone was bringing clothes and toys, and there was far too much because there was no co-ordination. People were giving online with different websites set up rather than one central one. I think our job is to help co-ordinate and maximise the effort of people who want to do something with the causes they care about.


The world has changed a lot since 1919, there are far more things to do. Do you think the younger generation has an appetite for volunteering?


They absolutely do. They might not call it volunteering, they might call it something different like ‘social action’. They might just call it getting involved. Some of the issues here are around language. I don’t think we have thought through what quite works for young people. Just as in 1919, we might have been having a conversation about philanthropy and charities, I’m not sure we would have been talking about volunteering, we would probably have been talking about social work, even though it is unpaid work. They want to get involved but they want to do it differently, we are very clear about. Whereas my generation was familiar with the model where you stay with the same organisation for many years, where you are committed and loyal, and give large chunks of time, and you might do that regularly because you want to give a commitment. That’s not how people want to get involved any more. It is bit like shopping. My mum may have gone to the same supermarket forever because there was that brand loyalty, she might have gone once every two weeks for a massive shop. Now people are going to small shops, they are going shopping every day – they’re shopping online. Getting involved is something similar for young people.

There is a lot less loyalty. If there is loyalty, then it is to a cause not to an organisation, so we have to be clear about the cause. People do not want to commit at all, so you have got to be able to offer volunteering opportunities where if you get involved, you are not saying you are going to get involved for the rest of the year. They want flexibility in terms of timing and they want to give smaller chunks of time. So there is an expression ‘micro-volunteering’ that people are using, which says how can we do things by helping people to give smaller amounts of time with no commitment. How can we help people to volunteer but without having to be at the organisation? So we have organisations such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind where you can volunteer for them and help people with sight and visual impairments, so if they have problems with a computer, you can do it from home.

So young people want to get involved, but they want to do it differently. A challenge for us as a sector is how do we provide opportunities which fit with how people want to get involved. Because you will come across some charities who will say ‘We have a big problem that people don’t want to volunteer any more’. I’m not sure that is true. The bigger challenge is: are we creating opportunities which match how people want to get involved?

We have to think about people’s motivations and why they get involved. And sometimes we forget that as human beings, one of the reasons we volunteer is that people want a social experience, where they can have enjoyment and fun. And Rotary will understand that better than anyone.


Why do people want to volunteer?


Sometimes it will be about learning a new skill or acquiring new knowledge, sometimes it will because you want to meet friends. I sometimes volunteer for ParkRun on a Saturday morning. I started off by running, which I absolutely love because of the community spirit. And after doing that a few times, I thought it is my turn now to volunteer and get involved. And when you are marshalling ParkRun and someone runs past and says ‘thank you’, it is the best feeling ever. I love it.


With volunteering hours in the UK, is it on the increase or decrease?


It is broadly static. About one in four adults volunteer for a club or society every month. The numbers move about a little bit. You will be unsurprised in 2012 around the time of the Olympics and Paralympics there was a big uptake in volunteering.

But there are challenges. Our sector, broadly speaking, is geared up for a model of volunteering, an unpaid workforce model, which older people probably practise, which, excuse the expression, is substitute labour, where you train people and get commitment for a long time. Whereas the hours people are giving now is what you might call ‘serious leisure’.


When David Cameron came along with his Big Society plan in 2010, what happened?


I don’t think Big Society had enough thought to back it up in terms of policy and practice. The argument was being made about a time when the Government was making reductions in spending. I think some of the communications were cack-handed. It became too easy to ridicule the idea. I am not proud that our sector kicked the Government in the shins. Some people didn’t want it to succeed, but others were saying ‘we are already doing this’. The irony, of course, is I suspect some of the ideas about people taking more responsibility in their community was happening because of the spending reductions, but the state can’t do everything.

There is something different about people doing things for which they are no paid. If you go into the general hospital in Wrexham, there are a group of volunteers there, and there is a gentleman called Edward Parr, who is called the human SatNav. I don’t know if you have ever had an experience with taking a relative to a hospital for an appointment, a hospital which is large and complex building. It is his job to show you around. He is a volunteer. It means fewer missed appointments and that may be saving the state some money. The state is never going to be able to that.

If you go to another hospital, there are volunteers who sit down in waiting rooms, hold people’s hands and talk to them at what must be terrifying times. And there is something incredibly powerful about those people who are volunteering and providing that kinship and friendship. The fact that they are unpaid is quite important in the building of those relationships.


You said earlier how you feel that volunteering is good for the soul.


I think it is good for the soul for the recipient, but also for the person doing the volunteering. One of my biggest frustrations about this debate is very quickly the conversations boil down to money. If you extrapolate the question about volunteering hours, then very quickly a Government minister would say what is that worth if we multiply those hours by the minimum wage? Whereas, some of the more interesting thinking is asking the question what is the value of volunteering on people’s well-being. Gus O’Donnell believes the reason public policy should be far more interested in volunteering is its capacity to do something for people’s subjective well-being.


Sometimes it is easy to wonder what sort of world would we have if there was no volunteering.


At the risk of getting misty eyed about all this stuff, the world would fall apart without volunteering. School governors, sports coaches, lay magistrates, or the 200,000 people who volunteer in the NHS. Everywhere you look. It varies wildly from the money-saving administrative functions to the much more, hard to value but important type stuff such as the Samaritans.

Take the Samaritans which is emotionally challenging work, which is not easy to recruit someone to, just as the lifeboat crewman which is physically challenging work.

What I’d ask you to do is to plot your day out and you will probably find that with most of the things you do during the day, volunteers will have touched your life directly or indirectly.

Even my very boring one, I come out of the house in a village, and at the bottom of my road is a community garden which I look at. That is maintained by volunteers, as is the churchyard next to it. I cycle to work and I would argue that my interests as a cyclist and my well-being is protected by a cycling club that do things like trying to get drivers to slow down. I get on a train. Besides the fact that you have volunteers planting flowerbeds at the station, there is also a passenger advocacy group trying to do things about ensuring the trains run on time. I get off at Kings Cross and walk along the canal which is maintained by volunteers, and I will go home in the evening where I will take my sons to the St John Ambulance and the Army Cadets, those things could not happen without volunteers.

In my village, the scouts need more volunteers, they need more scoutmasters, and they are struggling a bit.

On Saturday morning, I’ll take the children to the football club, or attend ParkRun, all things that seem to me to be part of the warp and waft of my life – people everywhere are giving their time.

I am not especially interested someone from the National Statistics Office saying that is worth five per cent of GDP, or whatever, but what I am interested in is telling the stories. I am interested in taking that out to people we should value and nurture volunteering, not in a cash sense. People are doing things every day and we should do all that we can to make it as easy as possible to volunteer in their communities.