On Wednesday 27th January 2009, Volunteer Centres Ireland presented to the Oireachtas Subcommittee on Community, Rural and Gaeltacht affairs. Below is the text of that presentation.
Good afternoon. My name is Tricia Nolan, I am the chair of VCI and the manager of the South Dublin County Volunteer Centre. I am here today with Yvonne McKenna, CEO of Volunteer Centres Ireland and Tina Roche, CEO of Business in the Community, The Community Foundation and fellow board member of VCI. Yvonne and I will be jointly presenting today. VCI is the national agency for promoting and supporting volunteering in Ireland. Our objective is for a society in which everyone who wants to volunteer – no matter who they are or where they live – can access volunteering opportunities that are appropriate and rewarding.
Before beginning our presentation, I would like to thank Charlie O’Connor TD and Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher TD for meeting with us in November and giving us the opportunity to present to you on volunteering in Ireland.
This is, in fact, my third time to visit this committee. The first visit was back in 2003 with Business in the Community Ireland. Our concern then was that there was a swathe of businesses in Ireland who wished to engage in volunteering and, at the same time, a real need being articulated by community and voluntary groups to engage people with business skills. Business in the Community, however, found that they were missing an essential piece of the jigsaw puzzle, which they identified as the ‘matchmaker’: the local infrastructural organisations that would act as a link between businesses that wished to support volunteering and organisations wishing to engage business volunteers. (This issue of appropriate matching was not confined to business or employees either.)
Following on from this meeting, Business in the Community and Volunteer Centres Ireland brought members of this Committee on a ‘Seeing is Believing’ tour. We visited projects in Dublin where local Volunteer Centres had matched businesses with community groups and saw the fruits of these endeavours. However, we also visited some companies where there wasn’t a local volunteer centre and heard them articulate their frustration at not being able to find appropriate roles for businesses. The outcome of the ‘Seeing is Believing’ tour was a series of hearings on volunteering held by this Committee in 2004. Thereafter, in January 2005, the Committee produced its report, Volunteers and Volunteering in Ireland. We welcome the opportunity today to update you on achievements made since the report was published and to highlight some of the challenges and opportunities volunteering in Ireland faces now.
In her introduction to Volunteers and Volunteering, Cecilia Keaveney TD, chairperson, spoke of ‘the perceived lack of progress’ made in advancing the recommendations to support volunteering put forth in either the White Paper of 2000 or 2002’s Tipping the Balance. I am delighted to say the same could not of this Committee’s report. In particular, the report recommended the expansion of the existing ‘volunteering infrastructure’. As the term would suggest, ‘volunteering infrastructure’ refers to the access points (the roads, the networks) into volunteering and the supports for both volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations that are necessary to ensure a positive and worthwhile volunteering experience. Volunteer Centres put people who want to volunteer in touch with organisations seeking volunteers and, as such, are the heart of any country’s volunteering infrastructure. When this Committee’s report was published in January 2005, there were eight volunteer centres in Ireland, only two of which received ‘core’ funding. Government’s response to this Committee’s report came in March 2005, with the announcement of a package of funding measures to support volunteering which included extending core funding to all eight Volunteer Centres and to fund VCI to employ a member of staff to develop the network and to grow it nationwide.
There are now more than twenty Volunteer Centres in Ireland, most of whom have a geographic remit that is either local authority- or county-wide. There are four core functions of a Volunteer Centre and they are to provide:
- A volunteer-centred placement service
- Supports for volunteer-involving organisations (consultation, training, one-to-one on policy etc)
- Promotion and marketing of volunteering
- Development of best practice within and across Volunteer Centres.
The question might be asked, why is the volunteering infrastructure so important? Is it a wise investment? Does not, or should not, volunteering occur ‘organically’, without interference? The answer, in fact, is ‘no’. With respect to volunteering, few (if any) organisations that involve volunteers were established for that reason. Instead, they were set up to achieve specific, laudable aims (e.g. address the problem of homelessness or addiction, encourage sports). As such, they require assistance and support, not only to ensure they involve volunteers properly, but to assist them think creatively and ambitiously about growing and developing through volunteer involvement. (The commitment of nonprofit organisations to the ethos of volunteering is not in question). Other issues are relevant too. People have certain expectations – formed in school, college and the workplace – of volunteering and these need to be met. We all know stories of volunteers not being appreciated, perhaps even acknowledged, when they turn up to volunteer. We need to ask ourselves the question: if some people do not volunteer, why not? Research here and elsewhere shows that people do not volunteer because they were not asked. If we are serious about volunteering, we need to ask people to volunteer. More than that, we need to ensure appropriate, fulfilling opportunities exist towards which to direct potential volunteers.
More significant, perhaps, than the quantitative increase in the volunteering infrastructure is the qualitative improvement. Working together as a network, we now have 20 member volunteer centres that adhere to an agreed quality standards document covering the four key areas mentioned. The document provides a clear and quantifiable framework for assessing the delivery of services by Volunteer Centres and forms the basis for VCI membership and funding, ensuring that public money is being spent correctly (this is outlined in the policy on volunteer centres and volunteering recently adopted by the Dept of Community, Rural and Gaeltact Affairs). In line with our objective to make it easier for people to find out about volunteering, in late 2005, our growing network adopted a national brand – the swirl. All our member Volunteer Centres use the same logo and branding and this has developed awareness and confidence in the network of Volunteer Centres and the services they provide.
Another important example of quality development in our network has been the creation and adoption of a single database system. I hardly need explain the significance of ICT in today’s world. Databases are fundamental to the day-to-day work of any Volunteer Centre. They allow for Centres to record the details of potential volunteers and opportunities and use this information to make matches. In partnership with the multi-national company Salesforce.com, we have developed a ‘bells and whistles’ custom-designed database system that not only suggests matches, but tells us what is happening with volunteering both locally and nationally. We use it to track individuals and trends: to find out who is volunteering, where they are volunteering, their motivation to volunteer, how much time they give, how long they stay with one volunteering opportunity and so on. We use it to find out the ‘gaps’ too: who is not volunteering, what areas are they choosing not to volunteer in etc? Our database system is the only national database of volunteering opportunities in Ireland. It produces up-to-the minute information that informs our work and strategy and which we use to inform others (media, our funders etc) about volunteering in Ireland. Incidentally, our database system ‘sits’ on our website, www.volunteer.ie. One of the members of this committee commented in 2004 that it would be wonderful if a website existed via which people could find out about volunteering locally. www.volunteer.ie provides such a service. Our database can also be accessed via the websites of local Volunteer Centres (our national branding extends to websites also: www.volunteergalway.ie, www.volunteerdublin.ie etc.)
This brings us on to the crux of our presentation, the impact of investment in the volunteering infrastructure in Ireland. In 2008, across our network of Volunteer Centres:
- More than 7,500 individuals registered to volunteer (over 3,000 of whom were placed in the same year)
- Close to 1,000 volunteer-involving organisations registered (bringing the total figure to over 2,400)
- 33% of those who registered were not Irish nationals
- 56% had never volunteered before
- 69% were aged 35 or under (of whom, more than 50% were aged 25 or under).
- 200,136 hours of volunteering were generated (equivalent to 114 full-time employees)
- Applying the average industrial wage, the ‘cost’ would be more than €3 million
Already this year we are seeing a 65% increase on the numbers registering to volunteer and a new picture emerging: there has been a decline in the number of non-Irish nationals registering, while the number of people citing unemployment as a motivation to volunteer is on the increase.
Other developments include:
- The national volunteer management training programme
Currently underway, by mid-2009 all Volunteer Centres will have been upskilled to provide volunteer management training to volunteer-involving organisations within their remit. The Joint Committee recognised the importance of volunteer management training in its 2005 report and it formed one of its recommendations also.
- Garda Vetting
Better access to vetting formed another recommendation of the 2005 report and was recognised by VCI and Volunteer Centres as a significant barrier to volunteering also. In 2007, Volunteer Centres began providing Vetting to volunteer-involving organisations and there has been a roll out of the service across the network.
- Give It A Swirl Day
As acknowledged in the 2005 report, there is a need for a national ‘campaign’ around volunteering. Give It A Swirl Day is our answer to this. More than a campaign, Give It A Swirl Day is a unique initiative that invites members of the public to get involved in a ‘hands on’ volunteering project on a specific date (25th September). The purpose of the day is to provide an opportunity to try volunteering out – dip a toe in – and to illustrate that volunteering can make a difference and be a lot of fun. In its first year (2007), more than 830 individuals took part with, last year, more than 2,300 participants.
Neither VCI nor our Volunteer Centres operate in a vacuum. It is vital that we each work with other stakeholders, not just volunteer-involving organisations but private, public and other nonprofit organisations too. In the same way that Volunteer Centres build relationships with local agencies, VCI works with national organisations, including, for example, Business in the Community Ireland and Boardmatch. Although differently placed on the community and voluntary landscape, we appreciate the connections between our organisations and the opportunity for synergy. For obvious reasons, the establishment of a Taskforce on Active Citizenship is very relevant to our work. Volunteering is one of the key elements of Active Citizenship and we look forward to assisting the Taskforce achieve the objectives it has set itself, and to providing them with evidence-based research regarding volunteering in Ireland. Just recently, we had the opportunity to do that with Dermot McCarthy and impressed upon him the fact that the real issue facing volunteering in Ireland is not a decreasing number of volunteers but a dearth in the number of appropriate and rewarding volunteering opportunities toward which to direct volunteers.
Nor does volunteering exist in a vacuum. Societal realities and trends must, by necessity, inform the volunteering infrastructure. It is more than four years since Tricia presented to this Committee, four since the publication of Volunteers and Volunteering in Ireland, and slightly less since the announcement of funding. As today’s presentation has shown, a lot has been achieved in that time. A lot has changed also. We are living in a very different world and a different country than the one that inspired the establishment of the Taskforce. The most pressing realities we face now are recession, retreating resources in our sector (not only funding but sponsorship and other supports) and rising unemployment. Now more than ever, it is vital that volunteering and supports for volunteering be recognised as absolutely vital. Not as a jaded response to economic crisis but as a positive, proactive, realistic and worthwhile action to take, with potentially massive returns. Volunteering is an end in itself. It is also a means to an end: to retraining, to discovering abilities, to developing confidence, responsibility and investment in community. We are fond of discussing the psychological impact of ‘Celtic Tiger’ (perhaps we go too far in this regard). Now we need to consider the psychological impact of recession. If supported properly, volunteering will assist us to cope.
At present, the budget for volunteer centres nationally is about €2.4 million per annum, provided for in the NDP and in Towards 2016. Not despite but because of recession, it is imperative that we continue to invest in volunteering in recognition of its intrinsic value and the fundamental role it plays in a healthy and active society. Volunteering is no more – but no less – than the difference between activity and inactivity and, now more than ever, we need to act.