June 10th 2014 Resources for Autism won the Westminster Student Union Charity of the Year for our work with volunteers. This event was designed to be one of the many around the country to coincide with National Volunteering Week. Resources for Autism had our own events in Birmingham and London to thank our fabulous volunteers for all they do for our families. Volunteering week is a good time to remember some key facts about volunteering that are often forgotten or ignored.
- · Volunteers give their time generously but they are not ‘free’.
- · To support volunteers effectively and professionally takes skill, time and money
- · Volunteers should never be out of pocket when they give their time
- · Volunteers should expect to be developed and trained and to gain new skills if they want to.
In the current financial climate Resources for Autism is, quite rightly, praised for having an active volunteer work force working alongside our paid staff. However sometimes that praise is for the wrong reasons and certainly some of what I am hearing at funding meetings is very worrying. ‘Volunteers are free labour’ is the mantra and the thoroughly incorrect and worrying view taken by those who are just searching for cheaper ways to do things.
Volunteering comes in many forms. Volunteers may be part of a team who come and spend a few hours once a year painting or gardening for a project. They may help at an event once in their lives – the Olympics being the obvious example of this. They may give time as a coach to a local football team, following their own passions or as is the case for Resources for Autism Reach Out Volunteers (and we have other volunteers but more of that later) they may be offering several hours a week to families who are desperately in need of excellent, trained, reliable support with a child or young adult who may present considerable challenges.
To look at any of these volunteers as free labour is completely missing the point. These are people who share a sense of community, want to ‘give something back’ and care enough to use their leisure time to benefit others. They are also people who need excellent training, professional support and travel and other out of pocket expenses paid; they may be wanting to gain experience to further their studies or to gain paid employment. Free they are not. Valuable they are. Volunteers enable us to provide service to far more families than we would without them but at an hourly cost to the organisation that is considerable. This is not a bad thing but it does need recognition and funding. I am very proud of the number of volunteers who go on to gain paid work as a result of their time with us. I am particularly proud of those volunteers who themselves have autism and who volunteer with us and are enabled to volunteer with other organisations but need that bit of extra support. Without paid staff to give them the extra needed they would not be able to engage and that comes at a cost. No 'free labour' but a really valuable experience for people who would otherwise be unable to volunteer offering a really special voluntary input to the wider community.
Volunteers also offer Resources for Autism admin support, finance support and occasional support in fundraising. Some work two or three times a week for several hours, others work for short periods but every day. All of this is incredibly helpful and oils the wheels of the organisation and hopefully benefits those offering their time. Certainly a finance volunteer with us was very clear that it was a direct result of the experience she gained while volunteering that landed her a very well paid job in the City. That meant she had to stop volunteering but I was delighted for her. Volunteers will come and go and that is part of the ‘cost’ to an organisation and hopefully of ‘gain’ for the volunteer. It is not a negative but just part of life and the training input and cost from paid staff has to factor this in as it will have to be repeated sometimes over and over again.
As a society we should continue to value and respect our volunteers and remember to thank them formally and informally at every opportunity but we also need to challenge the idea that they are or that they ought to be free.