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The Chartered Institute of Housing is the independent voice for housing and the home of professional standards

The value of volunteers


Volunteering is fundamental to the work of housing organisations, say CIH consultancy's Graham Maunders and Carole Forrest of Carole Forrest Associates.

Image of playdough people and houseThe Rio Olympics dominating the headlines brought back memories of London 2012, which owed much of its success to the dedication of volunteers. Housing providers should look no further for inspiration on how to maintain service levels and make a difference in their communities. 

The financial argument is clear - the work of formal and informal volunteers has previously been estimated as £45 billion a year in the UK. Peabody, the first large housing association to be awarded ‘Investing in volunteers’ accreditation said last year 1,149 volunteers contributed £1.6 million of value.

There is certainly no shortage of volunteers either – according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), more than 14 million people in the UK give up their time to do unpaid work once a month. There is a wealth of opportunities for housing organisations to involve volunteers, from governance to community and estate programmes and working alongside paid staff. And approached in the right way, volunteering can reduce costs, enhance services and inject vital new perspective and enthusiasm. Stephen Howlett, Peabody’s chief executive, rightly speaks with great pride about the huge difference volunteers have made to his organisation.

The value to those taking part has been demonstrated by studies time and time again. Volunteers benefit from enjoyment in helping others, learning new skills, meeting new people, making a difference and gaining vital experience to get a step closer to formal employment. The DWP and Cabinet Office have estimated the wellbeing value to frequent volunteers as being in the region of £70 billion a year. One Housing’s group chief executive Mick Sweeney recently described the value of volunteering to those taking part as invaluable in terms of boosting self-esteem, independence and confidence.

Of course, these measures only reveal part of the picture and on a practical level it isn’t quite that simple. Successfully running a volunteering programme requires time and investment and any organisation needs to demonstrate it will add value. So what should providers think about to make it work?

Firstly, organisations have to take volunteering seriously and be clear what they are trying to achieve from the outset. They must also be clear about what they are offering volunteers, understand their motivation and make continued efforts to make sure they feel valued. If you don’t actively support your volunteers, prioritise their personal development, and offer training you can expect to have a high turnover and poor productivity. There are costs of attracting, recruiting and training volunteers, and it is time-consuming.

Any organisation using volunteers must also have appropriate policies and procedures in place in the same way it does for its paid staff and they need to be prepared that managing people not motivated by the need for money to meet their day to day living costs means a different approach is likely to be needed.

When you put it like this it starts to sound too much like hard work and perhaps this is why there are only five housing providers among over 800 organisations to achieve accreditation through the NCVO. But given their place in the community housing providers are in an ideal position to make a commitment to volunteering and if they do it right the benefits can hugely outweigh the investment of time and resource - adding value to services and activities. What matters just as much, as London 2012 showed, is that volunteering can play a significant part in creating cohesive communities and helping people get the skills and confidence they need.

Graham Maunders is managing director of CIH Consultancy and Carole Forrest is the founder of Carole Forrest consultancy.

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