Volunteers’ Rights

One of the questions that we ask organisations that come to us for support around volunteering is about their volunteer policy. Specifically, about whether they have a statement of volunteers’ rights and responsibilities. I have always considered such a document to be of real benefit to both the volunteer and the organisation by setting out clearly what they can expect from each other.

I spotted this story on the Guardian’s website about treatment of volunteers by a couple of community radio stations. I feel very strongly that the example of a gay radio presenter quoted in this story who was “sacked” from his voluntary role only because of his sexuality is a breach of a volunteer right.

However, I worry about the rumblings about volunteers rights being extended to areas that are more properly employment rights. I have heard it suggested that volunteers should be given the right to sue for unfair dismissal. This seems to be dragging volunteering ever closer to the murky world of employment and I wonder if the proponents of such rights have thought through the implications of such a move.

An American volunteer manager, volunteering trainer and expert on online volunteering, Jayne Cravens, has made some very good points on the UKVPMs discussion forum. These points are so good that I am re-posting her entire message here.

On the one hand, I don’t believe in requiring volunteers to do things that staff aren’t: background checks should be for everyone, not just the volunteers. The anti-discrimination policy of the organization applies to everyone, not just paid staff. Neither paid staff nor volunteer staff should be exploited or mistreated or neglected.

But on the other hand, I also come from the point of view that:

  • volunteering with a nonprofit is a privilege, not a *right.* I involve volunteers so long as it explicitly benefits the mission of the organization, and if forced to choose, my loyalty would be to the mission of the organization and those it serves rather than to a volunteer.
  • volunteers are human beings and should absolutely be expected to be treated as such, however, they are NOT employees, and therefore are not entitled by law to any of the same legal benefits of an employee.
  • volunteers are managed by a volunteer coordinator, rather than a human resources director, because volunteers are NOT employees.

So I read this article with a lot of empathy and sympathy, but then cringed at “Volunteers should be protected against unfair dismissal.” *Legally* protected? If so, legally protected *how*?

The *primary* consequence of an employee being unfairly dismissed is that he or she loses income. There are other consequences, but loss of income is the *primary” consequence, and we all know that income is necessary for our survival. The laws that protect employees from being unfairly dismissed aren’t designed to do anything other than to prevent an employee from losing income and to restore an unfairly-treated employee’s lost income; the laws aren’t designed to restore anyone’s dignity or honor.

What would be the legal redress of a volunteer wronged? If a volunteer is granted the ability to sue regarding dismissal, what will the compensation be if whatever deciding body sides with the volunteer? Will he or she receive money? If so, say goodbye to volunteer involvement at probably *most* organizations; they aren’t going to risk that kind of financial expenditure. Reinstatement? The organization will be forced to involve the volunteer in his or her previous role? Does that volunteer then become untouchable, meaning the organization will have to keep the kinds of files, including regular evaluations, on volunteers that they maintain for staff in order to justify the disciplining, the requirement for training or the firing of a volunteer?

I guess in summary: I don’t ever want any volunteer dismissed for arbitrary reasons, I don’t ever want any volunteer mistreated or exploited, and I want us all to work to make sure that never happens, but I also don’t want volunteers to become employees, for a variety of reasons that I hope I’ve made clear (not sure I have).

And so I don’t really know what the answer is…

Volunteering England have set up a Volunteer Rights Enquiry Perhaps we need to consider the issues and feed back our thoughts to this enquiry. Please let us know what you think.

 

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About Volunteer Centre South Derbyshire

We are the Volunteer Centre serving South Derbyshire, supporting volunteers, volunteer managers and volunteering organsiations
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4 Responses to Volunteers’ Rights

  1. I’m flattered! Still not sure if I really answered the situation though…

  2. Iwas summarily dismissed after 3 years full time work for York Library Service. I had volunteered to preserve, transcribe, annotate and catalogue documents which had been neglected for over 50 years. The reason given for my dismissal was that I had “breached a code of mutual trust”. i.e. I had complained about a threat that the Council
    intended to apply for copyright on my catalogue, which I wished to be freely available to all.

    I had also insisted the the documents should be available to the public only according to the rules of best practice. I had challenged the Archivist, so was a disobedient volunteer.

    There are no plans to complete my work since no one else in the Archives has my specialised knowlege. Sacking me was more important than preserving nationally important documents.

    Is it not about time that all organisations which recruit volunteeers should be registered and
    required to have a a grievance policy?

    William Dixon Smith

    • Thank you for contacting us about this issue.

      I agree that it is good practice for volunteer-involving organisations to have a volunteer policy that includes a comprehensive problem solving procedure that covers discipliniary as well as grievance policy. It also looks like this organisation should include issues of copyright ownership as well.

      As far as your own situation is concerned, I am sure that there are other organisations in York that would love to be offered your skills in this specialist field. I hope that your recent experience will help you to ask some searching questions before making the gift of your time. It might also be worth contacting your local Volunteer Centre based at:

      York Council for Voluntary Service,
      15 Priory Street,
      York,
      YO1 6ET

      Telephone: 01904 621133
      Fax: 01904 630361

      email: volunteer@yorkcvs.org.uk

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