Do we care about volunteers?

A major report on volunteering has provoked very little comment from within the leisure, culture and sport sector, despite this sector’s reliance on and investment in the good will of unpaid supporters. Mick Owen wonders why.

On the sidelines: 73% of adults have volunteered at least once in the past year

When the Commission on the Future of Volunteering finished their work back in January they must have allowed themselves a self-congratulatory smile and a metaphorical pat on the back. After all, they had spent more than a year on the consultation, held twenty-eight separate public meetings, heard evidence from 1,190 different individuals and organisations and their ‘Manifesto for Change’ had eventually run to more than thirty pages. Baroness Julia Neuberger, chair of the Commission, had found sufficient evidence to demand a “fundamental shake-up to make volunteering part of the DNA of our society and improve volunteering for millions of Britons over the next ten years” and felt justified in saying publicly – and very loudly – that “red tape, unnecessary CRB [Criminal Records Bureau] checks and [the] failure of the voluntary sector to genuinely respond to society’s diverse needs are discouraging willing volunteers”. Heady stuff. They must have expected some encouraging responses – perhaps even a little controversy – and the Baroness must have expected to make the news.

Sadly, when it comes to sport and leisure she must be deeply disappointed. By definition ‘news’ is something that is both new to the reader and something that excites, interests or annoys her or him. The Manifesto for Change has been around since the end of January and still nobody in sport and leisure seems even slightly bothered by it. It is almost as if it is being ignored. And this cannot be because it is irrelevant to a sector that exists solely because of the work of volunteers. According to the report, 73% of all adults have volunteered at least once in the last year and 49% of the population did so once a month. Add those statistics to the 2002 finding that 26% of all volunteering takes place in a sporting context and the evidence that someone ‘in charge’ within the sport system should have reacted by now might be considered overwhelming, especially as Neuberger does not paint the prettiest of pictures when she describes how volunteers are treated by “volunteer-involving organisations” and the “volunteer infrastructure”, suggesting that cultural change is needed to “sort out the infrastructure” with organisations “rethinking risk” and “removing barriers to volunteering”.

Her biggest bugbear is the number and diversity of ways organisations find to deter willing and able people, and she cites the vexed question of CRB checks in particular as a classic symptom. To find out whether her concerns are justified we approached the NSPCC’s Child Protection in Sport Unit which has been at the forefront of the drive to ensure the use of CRB checks for people in a ‘position of trust’ within sports clubs’ junior sections. Director Steve Boocock gave a balanced response: “We welcomed the publication of the report and agree with what it says about the need to raise the profile of volunteering. However, it is disappointing to see comment that CRB checks are perceived as a barrier for volunteers. Our view, which is backed by evidence, is that these checks are a worthwhile and integral part of the safe recruitment and deployment of volunteers.”

Steve then quoted figures from the bureau which show that of all the checks carried out within a “sport/community context” around 10% come back “not blank”. This piece of jargon means that something significant to the safeguarding of children has been found in the background of one in ten applicants for paid or voluntary roles within this sector; the average percentage across all sectors is around 7.5%. A whole array of esoteric statistics is available in the customer satisfaction survey section of if you are stout of heart and can speak ‘stats’. However, whatever your understanding of the detail, it is clear that the use of CRB checks is tangibly protecting children.

It seems then that the Neuberger report is picking up on concerns around the ‘portability’ of CRB checks, which the CPSU acknowledges and is working on, and the wider issue of what critics of the sports development profession are wont to disparagingly call ‘box ticking’. Indeed the report highlights this problem, commenting that “the third most commonly cited constraint to the development of voluntary sport is the increase in the number of checking procedures, form filling requirements and training that volunteers are asked to complete”. Not only are individuals being asked to add hours to their volunteering week by attending workshops and filling in forms but their clubs are being forced through even more hoops.

At a conservative estimate a community rugby club with a junior section with ten age groups would need to expend in excess of six hundred volunteer hours on training people, creating documentation and completing action plans before being awarded the Seal of Approval, their governing body’s equivalent of Clubmark. And that calculation has been done on the assumption that the hypothetical club would be cynically going through a tick-box procedure rather than actually trying to improve. Given that the Rugby Union has one of the best development teams in governing body sport how less well resourced sports manage can only be a matter for conjecture. The exercise, though a paper one, certainly seems to accord with the Commission on the Future of Volunteering’s concerns.

But what is of most concern must be the deafening silence since 28 January from a profession that purports to value volunteers. Even when asked for their response, Sport England, to name but one, was unable to come up with a few well chosen words. Contrast this to the response of Volunteering England and the National Trust, both of which published responses within days and both of which used the word “commitment”.


Mick Owen is managing editor of The Leisure Review. He is also an experienced sports coach.

The Leisure Review, April 2008


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“What is of most concern must be the deafening silence since
28 January from a profession that purports to value volunteers.”


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