When Voluntary Work Goes Wrong
Working as a volunteer brings many rewards but there are downsides associated to some forms of voluntary work.
Many volunteers have fulfilled lives, working in structured and supported voluntary roles that allow them to contribute to society and to build their own skills and self-esteem. But it’s not always like that: some volunteers feel they are burdened with work that ‘won’t get done if they don’t do it’, others feel that they are treated worse than paid staff. Some find that their voluntary role changes rapidly and they are constantly outside their own experience and comfort zone, without much support. A few experience serious issues of accountability and health and safety which imperil them or others.
The Job DescriptionIt’s a fact that many volunteers are given a job or role description at the beginning of their work which is almost immediately ignored by the organisation, and the individual, in favour of getting on with the job. This enthusiasm to get started on the first task that presents itself: whether or not it falls within the job description, can lead to a long history of being presented with one unexpected and unfamiliar chore after another because nobody else has it in their description and the volunteer has already demonstrated that they are ready to pick up and run with odd jobs. This situation arises most often in very small organisations and very new ones, both of which are unlikely to have the strong support structures for staff and volunteers that allow for long-term, harmonious team-building.
Putting It RightEven if you’ve strayed down the path of ad hoc tasks being your main voluntary experience, it’s not too late to reverse the situation. Rather than grumbling and griping about the situation, set a date for a review with your supervisor or line manager, about a month in advance. Keep a diary of your work for that month, simply noting the tasks you undertake, and the amount of time they require. Then, at the review, either produce your original role description and show how at variance your actual work pattern is, or request a role description, if you weren’t given one at the start, that takes account of your skills and interests and allows you to plan your voluntary work effectively. If, after a month, substantial progress hasn’t been made it may be time to ask for a further review or maybe, to look for a voluntary post in an organisation that will support you as well as expecting you to support it!
The HoursIf a volunteer is committed to the cause that the organisation addresses, he or she may feel a desire, or even an obligation, to work well beyond the hours originally agreed. This is very common in ‘crisis’ organisations that deal with human or animal welfare, where the problems do not obey office hours, but is also a prevalent experience for those who find themselves taking work home or working at home on projects that just couldn’t be fitted into the agreed hours – for example in doing accounts or research, typing up reports or preparing work for the following session.
This kind of approach to volunteering is actually a form of abuse: where paid workers would receive extra pay or time off in lieu for their extra hours and volunteers to not, it creates tension in organisations, leads to a feeling of being taken for granted and can create a constant turnover of volunteers who burn out because they are constantly exceeding the basic commitment of hours that was set at the beginning of their voluntary role.
Putting It RightIt can be incredibly difficult for committed volunteers to act in their own best interests by reducing the hours they give to a cause they believe in. The start point may be to talk to the volunteer manager or supervisor and explore whether the original commitment needs to be formally extended – for some volunteers, a simple acknowledgment that they work more hours is enough, especially as it allows them to renegotiate other areas of their lives on the basis that their ‘job’ has grown. If the extra hours are actually affecting quality of life, then a log of hours worked may help both the individual and the organisation to find a solution. Sometimes a new voluntary post can be created or work patterns can be streamlined.
It is important to note that some volunteers find that although they complain about the hours they work, they also feel sad and somewhat threatened when the organisation takes action to reduce those hours. It’s vital to be sure, before taking action, that you know what you would like to happen (new contract, less hours, better support etc) but also to be creative in approaching the solutions that others suggest.
Legal ObligationsThe most important consideration is Duty of Care, which means that voluntary organisations, and individual volunteers within them, have a duty of care to each other and to anybody who is, or may be, affected by the organisations actions (and inactions). This means that if something goes wrong and injury occurs, an organisation, or an individual within that organisation, can be sued for damages. Most cases of this kind end up in courts just because the standard legal position, The Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 (HSW)is only in exceptional circumstances applied to anybody who is not an employee, an employer, or self-employed.
This means that Health and Safety Executive and local authority officers do not usually have the power to investigate or take action against volunteers or voluntary organisations except in certain circumstances. School volunteers usually come under local authority investigation, for example, because the school has many employees and so HSW applies to any activity where those employees are based. However, many madrasas and other centres of religious instruction, do not fall under the HSW act because they are based outside schools and do not offer employment contracts to the teachers who work for them.
This can lead to volunteers who are under-trained or under-resourced being put in charge of potentially dangerous situations. There have been instances of children being injured on school trips, athletes being given inappropriate coaching or first aid treatment by volunteers on endurance activities and so on.
Putting It Right
It is the responsibility of the individual, or the parents of a minor, to ensure they have confidence in the training and materials being used in voluntary activity. Look for standard certificates of public liability insurance, training in Health and Safety, First Aid and other specialist qualifications, a clean and tidy environment and evidence of continuing professional development. If certificates appear to be out-of-date or relate to different volunteers to those leading the activity, ask questions to find out what level of training they have and how recently they have been trained.
It is always better to be sure, yourself, as a volunteer, that your training is up-to-date: both volunteers and employees should have the necessary information, training and protective equipment to allow them to undertake their roles safely. If this concerns you, it is important to make a formal statement in writing to the organisation, as you can be legally liable for any failure of Duty of Care that results from your being undertrained or resourced and such a statement can be part of a defence in law. If action is not taken on your statement, it may be time to ask for a change of role, stating your concerns clearly, so that the organisation is made aware of its responsibilities and of the risks inherent in not resourcing volunteers effectively.