During the COVID-19 pandemic, the popularity of volunteering soared across many sectors. Likely, people’s increased time at home and wish to give back to their communities at a time of crisis contributed to this. Yet, the volunteering market is not without its issues. The exploitation of volunteers happens across industries. So, we at Xpertd want to open an honest conversation about the opportunities and pitfalls of volunteering. Especially, as it is now time to consider the role volunteering can have in aiding economic recovery after the pandemic.
Volunteering happens in many forms, and anyone can gift their time or skills to help others. But it is not all about giving. In fact, volunteering can have many benefits to you and your career. For example, volunteering is an excellent way to gain experience, use or build your skills, or meet new people. For many young people, it is also a way to build up their CVs while they are still in full-time education. But, as the word ‘volunteering’ indicates, it is up to the individual to give their time freely and voluntarily.
This leads us to the darker downside of volunteering. Too often, businesses seek financial gains from the free labour provided by volunteers. This is especially problematic when it comes to young people or those in vulnerable career positions. Unpaid apprenticeships, internships, or overtime quickly turn into free labour. This, in turn, leads to exploitative relationships between businesses and their employees.
Traditional forms of volunteering
Volunteering has a long history in the UK. It is traditionally an aspect of charities, clubs, and trusts. From church groups to sports clubs, every day countless people all over the country gift their time and skills. We all know organisations that rely on volunteers, whether that is for cancer research or homeless shelters.
But not all volunteering is limited to the third sector. A clear distinction needs to be made between not-for-profit organisations that rely on volunteers, and businesses that focus on financial gain. People who volunteer for a charity usually choose to do so because the charity’s cause is close to their heart. Whereas an employee who takes on an unpaid role for a business often does so for less altruistic reasons. These can include pressure from the management or hopes of furthering their career. This opens up a whole new set of opportunities – as well as possible pitfalls.
Before we dive deeper into this topic, let’s have a quick look at how the landscape of volunteering has changed as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
How has COVID-19 changed the volunteer market?
Volunteering is currently extremely popular. Especially well-known organisations (like the Red Cross and the NHS) have seen a sharp rise in the number of volunteer applications. And it is easy to see why. These organisations are responsible for key parts of the pandemic response.
One positive consequence of the pandemic is that more and more young people have decided to take up volunteering. According to Charity Times, especially the number of volunteers aged under 30 has seen a big increase. Yet, the number of older people volunteering, which is traditionally high, has seen a drop. This is likely a consequence of the guidance which has asked older and vulnerable people to self-isolate during the pandemic. It is possible that this trend is temporary, and that many older people will return to volunteering once it is again safe to do so.
Simultaneously, the widespread restrictions on travelling have caused a sharp decline in volunteering for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) abroad. The collapse of volunteer tourism has caused a devastating drop in the size of the international volunteer workforce. It is yet to be seen how, and when, this will recover as the restrictions lift in the wake of the pandemic.
Can volunteering help to shape economic recovery after COVID-19?
Many businesses have been affected by the pandemic – with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) bearing the brunt. It has been estimated that by mid-2021 in the UK, 5.9 million SMEs will be impacted, and 2.6 million people are expected to be unemployed.
From the start of the pandemic, businesses across most industries saw mass layoffs and closures. It is unlikely that anyone could have predicted how long the business restrictions were to last, or how widespread they would be. Even now, it is hard to create reliable predictions for how long it will take for the economy to recover. Small businesses are often less stable than their larger counterparts when hit by such unexpected events.
The UK government has established a range of relief measures to support economic recovery during and after the pandemic. But these measures have been mainly in the form of financial aid. Closures and the unplanned loss of experienced staff throughout the past year have also created another deficit. That is a deficit of skills and experience, which is making it even harder for already struggling businesses to regroup and recover.
Thus, we need to create opportunities for experienced professionals to stay in the workforce – or help them to volunteer their skills for the benefit of economic recovery. We at Xpertd help people to do this by creating opportunities and connections. Anyone can help to make a difference.
Exploitation of volunteers: what is the difference between volunteering and unpaid labour?
As we established earlier, volunteering can be a great way to gain skills and experience, as well as make connections. People volunteering for charities have many motivations for doing so. But their primary reason is often wanting to give their time for a good cause. The fact that most charities couldn’t exist without skilled volunteers is a testament to their value as workers. Why then, don’t we usually see volunteering advertised as a viable option for businesses?
First, unpaid labour is an ongoing issue in the business world. This is something we need to acknowledge and talk about. Many people on the corporate ladder will recognise the pressure to take on extra tasks outside their job description in order to move forward in their career. Due to this, volunteering often equals unpaid labour in the corporate world. Too often businesses tend to overwork already vulnerable employees for financial gain.
But, with a dedicated community of professionals, we can change the bad name volunteering currently has in the business world. This can be done by working with people who are willing to take part in employment, volunteering and mentor schemes. To reduce the exploitation of volunteers, it is important to bring together the benefits of volunteering for both individuals and businesses.
Can volunteering help small businesses to recover?
The amount of skill and expertise which the pandemic has cut from the active workforce is massive. This has created a vacuum of knowledge, as many businesses have lost valued employees.
In recent decades, traditional apprenticeships and mentor relationships have become less popular – often to be replaced by expedited training courses. So, many skills are not passed on in the same way as before. This issue is currently enhanced by the unforeseen disruption caused by the pandemic. While businesses have been forced to lay off employees, many of those close to their retirement have chosen to leave the workforce early.
These experienced professionals could plug the skills gap by volunteering their expertise. This could be especially valuable for small businesses that are struggling to recover from the pandemic. So, as well as volunteering for traditional charities, we encourage mature professional to consider the avenue of volunteering for SMEs. This can provide a great opportunity to use their skills and experience in a way which will benefit the economy.
Volunteering for SMEs could include sharing anything from trade-specific knowledge to administrative experience. It is these small businesses that may not be able to hire the necessary experts at this time. We would like to see more local initiatives connecting businesses with people who have the skills to help them flourish. This is a chance which councils, local bureaus, and employment-related charities should embrace.
Counteracting the exploitation of volunteers – can I get paid to volunteer?
Of course, this raises the previously discussed ethical dilemma of volunteering for businesses. Should these highly skilled professionals get compensation for their time and skills? Can volunteering ever work in a business context? Can we even call it volunteering if people get paid for their labour?
Receiving compensation, of course, goes against the altruistic principles of traditional volunteering. And yet, it is fair to say that many skilled professionals in this position should be paid for their services. Especially, if they have recently been made redundant.
But there must be space for a compromise. One possible way is using opportunities from mentoring to volunteering and project-based work. This gives chances for experts to share their skills with the younger generation of employees and business owners. It also makes it possible for professionals to donate their time to aid economic recovery. Equally, schemes can be established to pay these professionals on a project basis or for a set fee.
What is Xpertd doing to solve these issues?
Xpertd is dedicated to connecting skilled professionals with businesses that are affected by the pandemic. We create opportunities for professionals to share their expertise with small businesses. We are against the exploitation of volunteers by businesses. And, therefore, have a community-centred approach. Our community comes together for the common goal of aiding economic recovery. Everyone has a skill or experience they can share. So, if you are interested to join the Xpertd Community and want to help our economy – sign up today.
For more information, you can also join the Xpertd Facebook Group. There you can meet other skilled professionals and business owners. We look forward to welcoming you as a part of our dedicated community!