Help for not for profit and charity trustees

Volunteer day

people are being invited to volunteer for a day

There has been a somewhat limp campaign to encourage people to volunteer for a day in connection with the Coronation of King Charles III – the ‘big help out’. On the one hand it seems to be for a day but others seem to interpret it as the start of a more lasting commitment. I’ve seen two reports referring to it as a ‘damp squib’.

Taking the one day model, the programme seems to assume that people are able simply to turn up somewhere and start volunteering. This overlooks the fact that for many charities, especially the thousands that deal with vulnerable people and children, you cannot just turn up. Any responsible charity would need to take a reference. Then they would have to apply for a DBS check which takes both time and money. There is then likely to be an induction process which might in turn involve training. So the idea of a day’s volunteering in these circumstances is absurd.

Looking round the programme and clicking onto the websites of the major charities which are listed as supporters and beneficiaries, there are the usual pictures of smiling volunteers with smiling people who are being helped. Somewhat misleading I suggest.

The programme reveals a lack of knowledge of sector by those who’s idea it was. The word itself is a ‘halo’ word which induces feelings of goodness and all that’s best in our society. The reality is that volunteering is declining in Britain. More and more charities are saying that finding volunteers, especially for trustee type roles, is becoming ever more difficult. The reasons for this are complex: many are struggling themselves let alone finding time to help others. Some have responsibilities towards elderly parents. One factor though is the fear of becoming a trustee. In a previous post I remarked how at the NEC a third of those who came to my stand said ‘never again’ or ‘no way’ when I mentioned becoming a trustee. The fear of falling foul of some regulation or other and the perceived risks of losing a sizeable sum of money weighs heavily in people’s minds.

Some of this stems from the Charity Commission who’s role is the control of charities not to support or speak up for them. There is a minister who has as a tiny part of their responsibilities, the charity sector. I could find no record of them speaking on their behalf in parliament.

The truth is that governments are wary of the sector and have ambivalent attitudes towards them. They like the idea of volunteers – sounds good – and turning up to some charity event in their constituency is usually good PR and gets them a photo with smiling people in the local paper. But the role of many charities is to shine a light on those in our society who have been neglected or overlooked by those self-same politicians. They help those who have suffered from government polices – such as austerity and cuts to local government. When charities speak out about such things, they don’t like that bit of the charity world. They want charities to pick up the pieces but not to speak about it.

A spotlight has been shone on the royal finances this month revealing the King’s personal wealth to be at least £1.8 billion and upon which he pays no tax. Like other mega wealthy people and businessmen, he is able to afford the very best tax advice resulting in little of his enormous wealth finding its way to the public purse. They then set up or donate to a charity(s) which gives them good media coverage. I do not deny the excellent work of the Prince’s Trust. They don’t like paying tax because, some of them say, ‘it’s wasted’. They are happy for the taxpayer to shell out a reported £100m for the Coronation though.

This volunteer day idea is something of a distraction. The Charity Commission should be reformed and its remit changed to help and support the sector first and policing it second. Like the BBC and the fuss this week over the resignation of its chair for being a crony of Boris Johnson, the chair should not be yet another Conservative crony but an independent appointee able to speak truth to power. The problems of becoming a volunteer and the time it takes to become one should be subject of an enquiry to see if more could be done to lessen the burden. Free DBS checks would be a start.

The work of charities and not for profits are a key element of our society. Without their efforts, many thousands of people would be without food aid, money and debt advice, without shelter and a host of other activities and help. They need support and encouragement from the government with a dedicated minister, and a Charity Commission willing to go into bat and speak out on their behalf. A half-baked one day scheme doesn’t cut it.

Peter Curbishley

Author of How to be a Successful Trustee, ISBN 9781 913012 618

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