The resilience of volunteers is under strain like never before
The announcement in TFN on Tuesday that Midlothian Council is proposing to cut all third sector funding was undoubtedly shocking, but unfortunately not surprising.
It confirmed a reality that we feared might occur as soon as the scale of the cost of living crisis became apparent last year.
As a sector we are used to a degree of financial uncertainty at this time of year while waiting for funding decisions. I’m sure many volunteer coordinators have faced the reality of trying to stay positive for volunteers and sustain a service whilst simultaneously being at risk of redundancy. When you look at the potential scale of the cuts this year however, coupled with other challenges presented by the cost of living crisis, the impact on volunteers and volunteering could be highly damaging.
Testing our Resilience, published in September last year, explored the potential impacts of the crisis on volunteers and volunteering. It identified that a reduction in income for third sector organisations could lead to reduced demand for volunteers as services contract. However, it also recognised that many organisations are experiencing an increase in demand for services as a result of the cost of living crisis. An uncomfortable paradox.
We have recently heard from one national organisation that funding for some of their volunteer-led services is at risk, despite having to implement waiting lists for all services due to the level of demand. Similarly, Glasgow City Council has decided to cut funding to Glasgow Food Train, a lifeline service which supports the independent living of older people by providing food supplies, despite the well publicised pressure on Scotland’s health and social care services.
We appreciate that local authorities and the Scottish Government are facing unprecedented financial pressure and need to make difficult decisions.
However, more detailed consideration of the impact of volunteering, and its contribution to the local economy, would suggest that this situation is short-sighted. Volunteers in formal roles contribute an estimated £2.3 billion to Scotland’s economy.
They play a particularly important role in easing the pressure on statutory services through person-centred, community-based, early intervention services. Community transport services respond to a community need, and support people to access medical appointments. Similarly, recent evidence identified that befrienders are often the first people to notice if a vulnerable person is at risk of crisis. Without dedicated paid support to recruit, train and support these volunteers, this significantly contribution would be greatly reduced.
I would also question any assumptions (especially in the current climate) that volunteers will simply continue to help without financial support, or step in to fill gaps left by cuts to funding. Whilst the kindness of individuals has buoyed community resilience in tough times before, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, there are indications that this is less likely to be the case this time.
Volunteers are not immune to the personal impacts of the cost of living crisis. As evidenced in our Quarterly Cost of Living Bulletin, nearly one quarter of adults in Scotland are struggling to pay their household bills (1.1 million adults), and 48% of people feel that their mental health has been negatively affected by the crisis (2.1m adults). It stands to reason that similar percentages of volunteers are experiencing the same challenges. This is a likely contributory factor for the 35% of voluntary organisations who’ve recently reported volunteer shortages as one of their top three challenges. The widespread decline in personal resilience will have a significant impact on rates of both formal and informal volunteering, and consequently on community resilience.
Finally, the current funding challenges facing the sector could increase the inappropriate engagement of volunteers. When you cut funding to a service the demand doesn’t disappear. In fact, a reduction in the number of services will increase demand on those that remain.
One ‘solution’ that organisations might consider in response to this ‘impossible situation’ is asking their volunteers to do more. Volunteers could increasingly be asked to undertake tasks that were previously done by paid staff, or asked to support clients that were previously helped by paid staff, or asked to volunteer with less support and supervision.
Some local authorities might even consider responding to the ‘unprecedented financial pressures’ they are currently facing by directly replacing paid roles with volunteers. This all contributes to volunteers experiencing stress and burnout, and eventually leads to a further decline in volunteer participation.
The Volunteer Charter, published in 2019 by Volunteer Scotland and the STUC, provides clear principles for assuring legitimacy and preventing the exploitation of workers and volunteers. It states that volunteers should not carry out duties formerly carried out by paid workers nor should they be used to disguise the effects of non-filled vacancies or cuts in services. It also states that volunteers should not be used to reduce contract costs nor be a replacement for paid workers in competitive tenders or procurement processes.
Volunteer Scotland would never condone or support activity that undermines the Charter, and would urge local authorities, funders and volunteer involving organisations to consider the Charter before making any decisions about volunteer engagement in the current climate. We would also encourage organisations facing challenging funding decisions to look at our new guidance related to the cost of living crisis.
Volunteer-led services are the bridge between communities and statutory services. Each individual service acts as a vital building block, or brick, in the complex structure that makes up this bridge. If you keep taking bricks out of the bridge, it will eventually collapse.
Sarah Latto is policy officer at Volunteer Scotland.