The Four Levels of Volunteering

Terry Wynne

My experience over the last year of volunteering within various organisations has led me to the view that there at least four different types of volunteering.

The first level is an organisation consisting purely of volunteers. It has been estimated, for example, that there are over 49,000 formally organised amateur arts groups across the country with nearly six million members. Those people work hard to create plays, concerts and exhibitions which others enjoy and will pay for. Few of the people concerned would consider themselves ‘volunteers’ and may not even like the term. However, this doesn’t matter provided each organisation recognises their value and manages them properly.

The second level is where the volunteer receives no pay but works alongside paid employees of an organisation (typically a charity). The volunteer may be working at a relatively unskilled informal task like serving in a café, ushering people to their theatre seats or collecting donations outside a tube station. If they have professional skills which aren’t being used, this may not be an issue if they have had recent experience of a demanding salaried job. Others may be frustrated at the situation. A good organisation will know which volunteers are in which category.

National Trust volunteers, for example, may have an art history degree but aren’t in a stately home to explain the paintings to the visitors. They are there to stop them touching the works of art!

Volunteers at the third level (also known as pro bono) tend to be professionally qualified and retained by a charity specifically for their technical knowledge. They may a lawyer giving legal advice or a business manager advising on project planning, risk analysis or organisational governance.

When a charity applies for funding from the Arts Council or Heritage Lottery Fund, they often need to show ‘matched funding’:  an equivalent amount they have raised themselves. This can include the notional monetary value of non-cash contributions. A typical entry in a bid document might say:

  • 15 volunteers x 1 day pcm   = £xxx
  • 4 x Professional pro-bono advice x 2 day pcm = £yyy

This shows the difference between second and third level volunteers: the volunteer in the newly constructed arts centre and the architect who helped design it.

The final level in my definition is a trustee sitting on the board of a charity. The volunteer is again unpaid and engaged for their expertise. However, they now have a duty to protect and safeguard the charity’s resources and a personal liability for their actions. It is a strategic role in which the trustee puts ‘their nose in but keeps their hands off’ the daily operation of the organisation.

A friend of mine is both a project manager and a trained volunteer for the Samaritans. I imagine that dissuading people from suicide differs from delivering projects for a major company but I am sure they use many skills from their managerial toolkit – empathy and active listening are just two examples – to succeed in this vital role. Perhaps this shows up my definitions as being too rigid. This good Samaritan is performing somewhere between levels two and three.

At whatever level they are performing, a volunteer’s time may be free but its value to their organisation is priceless.

Terry Wynne is a volunteer with Cultural Co-operation. He blogs in a personal capacity.

Guest contributors are invited by Reach to give their own take on issues related to skilled volunteering and trusteeship. We hope you enjoy their articles.

Opinions expressed are those of the writer and may not reflect those of Reach.

November 17th, 2011 by