Social Mission, Sustainable Enterprise AND Great Volunteers?

(Originally posted on as part of the Thoughtful Thursdays support network for volunteer managers)

I train people in volunteer management, and am also part of a workers’ co-op that grows and sells food.  I have for a while been noticing differences in these two work spaces I inhabit: whilst volunteers are involved in both sectors, attitudes and practice feel a little different between organisations that generate income through selling, and what we might refer to as the more traditionally ‘funded’ voluntary sector.  I have thought, said, and heard other people say the following over the last few years:

  • “If you’re turning a profit, how can you square that with getting people to work for free?”
  • “Social enterprises can’t involve volunteers…?”
  • “If it’s volunteering but for a private company, isn’t that work experience?”
  • “So…then… why don’t WE get paid?”

…And I wonder if we have differing opinions when it comes to volunteers.  It has often felt to me that I need to justify the involvement of volunteers in our tiny social enterprise more than perhaps a large trust-funded national organisation. What is a ‘social’ enterprise, anyway? Can’t you just say you’re doing good stuff and still pocket the profits?  If you’re generating an income through trade, should you really be involving volunteers? What about if all your income is re-invested in your organisation?   How do you balance relationships between paid staff, volunteers and customers?

The Thoughtful Thursday tweet chat provides a great platform to share and discuss a wide range of issues relating to volunteer involvement and I thought this would be an interesting one for us all to ponder…

What makes a ‘social’ enterprise?   Social Enterprise UK (SE UK) states that social enterprises have a clear social and/or environmental mission, generate the majority of their income through trade and reinvest the majority of their profits.  To me, it all comes back to the mission.  If your defined mission is social justice, the whole way you organise will be different to a business whose primary aim is money-making.  Our local vegetable box scheme for example would love to make all local deliveries by bike and trailer: this isn’t a sensible financial decision but it makes sense according to our mission, so our model may be to create a role that is a fun leisure activity and encourage volunteers to be involved in that in order to resource our financially ludicrous mission!
Many community groups may fit the SE UK definition but have never considered that they fit into this category.  Possibly some charities would feel that their income generation, despite being less than half of their income, may also define them more as a social enterprise than anything else.  As supporters of all these, maybe how we talk about volunteer involvement will help to be a support to the whole spectrum.
So what are the potential pitfalls of involving volunteers as a Social Enterprise?

Let’s take an example.  You are a community transport enterprise, you hire out minibuses for a high corporate fee and subsidise travel for vulnerable residents in your area.   You support your business model with volunteer involvement –  keeping staff costs down and supporting some residents to get work experience.  Where could some of the specific pitfalls be of involving volunteers?
Competitors: may feel aggrieved,that competition is skewed – perhaps you have been able to undercut other company’s staff costs in a tendering process for council older people services.  What’s wrong with this?  Nothing, but as a less scrupulous SE you may be tempted to do this more, and support your volunteers less, leaving yourself on dodgy ground in terms of job substitution and employment law.  And, if you do give in to any of these temptations, you may find that those grumpy competitors are keener to highlight some of your activities to the relevant authorities…
Staff: may feel undermined by volunteer involvement in a sector where the concept is newer, and assume job substitution, or the replacement of qualified staff with ‘unskilled’ volunteers.  If this is the case, volunteers may feel undervalued or underutilised in this situation.
Customers may also feel that the organisation is ‘cutting costs’ in order to make more profit for itself.  A corporate client using your transport for its away days could be confused when they pay a healthy sum and it transpires that their driver is a volunteer. Where is their money going?!
The solution to most of these potential issues? Good practice in volunteer management of course!  We are lucky that as volunteer managers we have a robust framework, the majority of which can be used to inform any kind of volunteer involvement.  One of the most useful things for me in being part of the Investing in Volunteers mark a few years ago was the simple act of formulating a paragraph which explained why we involved volunteers as an organisation: what we get out of it, what they get out of it.  The aspect of the standard we were fulfilling:

“People at all levels of the organisation (such as management committee, management, staff, volunteers, clients, supporters) have been informed of, and can articulate the organisation’s reasons for involving volunteers”

This transparency is a great starting point in dealing with customers’ misgivings, agreeing together as staff how important and integral volunteers are, and possibly in showing competitors that volunteer roles are not simply a free worker.
Because volunteering ISN’T working for free.  When we define it, and talk as an organisation about why we involve volunteers, it becomes clear that this is something that costs resources to support.  The decision to involve volunteers seems less and less mercenary the more you clarify it, talk about it, and the more developed the roles are.

Volunteer roles must be clear in any organisation – this avoids job substitution, and uneasy relationships between staff and volunteers.  Within a social enterprise this is especially pertinent, and would then apply to customers and competitors too.

In the same way as true social enterprises should be able to explain and justify the value of the social change they aim to bring about, they should also be able to explain how volunteers are part of that change: either by bringing about the change themselves, or by being changed.   This will be different for every organisation and the very process of explaining it contributes to the change itself.

I’m wondering…

Do you support organisations that involve volunteers?  If so, have you noticed a difference in attitudes towards volunteering between social enterprises and charities, NGOs?

Are you a social enterprise?  Do you involve volunteers?  Do you  find the current volunteer support infrastructure suits your needs? Have you encountered any specific pitfalls with your volunteers because you are a social enterprise?

Are you a social enterprise that has chosen that volunteering doesn’t fit into your business model?  Why did you come to that decision?

Are you a volunteer manager?  What are your thoughts on volunteer support within social enterprises?

More comments can be found at the original site of this article…