I Think All Volunteers Should Be Paid

Many volunteers doing roles that would otherwise be fulfilled by paid staff.  There are volunteers helping in libraries, acting as tour guides in stately homes, selling in shops, fundraising for charity and saving lives in the community. Many receive a significant degree of training for their role and have to commit to regular hours. You can’t ignore the pager when you are needed to rescue someone at sea or not be there to look after 30 children who are away with you for the weekend.  Payment would recognise this valuable contribution and stop the exploitation of individuals. Moreover, paying would open up these valuable career and life enhancing opportunities to a wider section of the community – those often excluded from voluntary roles because they need to instead be working in paid roles.

Now I am fairly sure most right minded people reading this would be aghast at such a suggestion. To pay volunteers would cut to the very act of charity – the giving freely of self. Moreover it would bankrupt most charities and services would end. Girl Guides for example have 100 000 volunteers giving over 10 million hours  – at the national minimum wage of £6.19 this would be over £60 million of additional cost for an organisation with a turnover of around £17 million.

And yet take the word ‘volunteer’ out and replace it with ‘intern’ and the issue becomes more contentious. And I am not sure why. Why the insistence that interns should be paid?

Maybe it is because interns are more associated with office roles? But that makes little sense – there are lots of volunteer admin and management roles that nobody blinks at being unpaid. And why would we more concerned about unpaid office staff than we would be unpaid first responders responding to cardiac arrests alongside the paid ambulance service?

NCVO and others make the point about full time roles, training and commitment to set hours meaning that broadly the interns are under an employment contract? Has that been tested in law?  Not all intern roles are full time while some volunteer roles can be – moreover some volunteers are doing 20 hour roles on top of a 40 hour paid week – surely this should be more of a concern? And, as clear in the some of the roles above, many volunteers undertake much training and have to commit to set hours with more serious consequences for failure to attend than for many interns.

On reading the various positions it seems that ‘intern’ (which in itself has no legal meaning) has become shorthand for and tied up with many issues that we DO need to address in the charity sector:

1.       Representation

We do need to ensure that the charity sector is representative of the communities in which we serve. For all the well-rehearsed reasons a diverse staff/intern/volunteer base improves organisational outcomes, helps ensures user voice, meets requirements of laws around discrimination etc. There are arguments that when unpaid internships are more available to the well off and well connected. I have little doubt that that is true. It is a truism in most areas of life. But internships are only one way into the sector.  Surely it is more important that an organisation looks at its widest recruitment strategies and ensure a range of approaches for bringing in staff and volunteers. Internship might bring in a certain ‘type’ (although I have known many great interns who don’t fit this mould for whom the opportunity was career enhancing) – but then surely there are routes to balance this out with other opportunities for access.  The same case could/should be made around payment for trustees – there is no doubt that some funding, and certainly proper expenses, for roles that may on other occasions be voluntary is an important tool to ensuring access but it should be deployed with care.


2.       Taking care of our human resources

The charity sector does need to demonstrate value led support for the people who carry out activities on its behalf. But that is true across staff and volunteers as well as interns. Concerns that interns are being exploited just because they are unpaid would by simple extension mean that volunteers are too.  There are broader issues to address about how we train and support the entire human resource that makes up charity – extending compassion and care when staff, volunteers or interns need support. Being clear on what the opportunities are and not making false promises. Watching for overload and helping to ensure a balance between work and home.  Looking at pay differential between senior staff and the lowest paid workers. We do need to set the bar high. But in transparent relationship with care and support interns are far from exploited and the reward for an individual in a well-structured value led intern placement are substantial.


3.       Replacing statutory provision

The sector does need a meaningful debate on when it should step in to support failure of state.  Unions have been quick to step in to condemn the use of interns and volunteers as replacement for paid staff. Does it matter if volunteers of any kind are now doing roles that were funded by government? Does it help the government make cuts to services? Does it drop the quality of public services? Does it damage community economies by taking removing paid roles? Is it a natural extension of the role that charity has always taken to fill gaps in state provision?

These are meaningful debates and as a sector it would be preferable if we could have the discussions without the hyperbole or using intern as a lazy shorthand to cover up a plethora of more pressing issues. Of course we can always tighten up the use of interns – but it really is far from our most serious concern.

However – as a last thought, just in case the debate does come out on the side of paying volunteers – and we all get a chance for a retrospective claim – then, in the immortal words of Del-Boy, “this time next year we’ll be millionaires!”