As we have seen, one major disadvantage of unemployment is that it makes you poor. And if you are poor, you are less likely to be able to afford the out-of-pocket expenses inseparable from volunteering: the bus fares, the lunches, the special clothing, and sometimes even accommodation. So if voluntary organisations really want to encourage unemployed people to volunteer, they
must find some way of reimbursing these expenses.
These days, all types of people can find themselves unemployed: young and old, male and female, black and white, disabled and able-bodied. So if they run up against the widespread misconception—disastrous for recruitment—that volunteering is mainly something that middle-class white women do, they are quite likely to conclude that volunteering is not for them. Many organisations have yet to succeed in convincing the public otherwise; so to get (for example) unemployed people involved, they will need to resort to carefully-targeted recruitment strategies.
A matter of interpretation
For jobless people, yet another disincentive to volunteering in recent years has been the threat it can sometimes pose to their welfare benefits. The Department of Social Security’s guidance is that unemployed people can do voluntary work and still continue to receive benefits. Most local benefits agencies interpret this correctly, but there is still a minority who seem to think that volunteers are ineligible for benefit because they are not immediately ‘available for work’. This problem should, however, disappear with the new Jobseekers Allowance, which replaces unemployment benefit and income support in October 1996. For the first time, its regulations state in so many words that unemployed people can do voluntary work of any kind and for any length of time without affecting their eligibility; but they must be able to show that they are looking for paid work, and if offered a job, they must be available to start within 48 hours.
This is cause for cautious optimism: for the first time, social security regulations explicitly acknowledge that voluntary work can improve the employment prospects of a jobless person.
The big issues
In practice, then, anyone trying to persuade unemployed people to volunteer will need to address four main issues:
- Unemployed people may not know about the personal and career benefits volunteering can bring them. Organisations have been too slow to point out that volunteering is not simply a matter of ‘doing your duty to society’ but also an activity that brings personal benefits, such as the chance to learn new skills, to acquire self-confidence and even to gain qualifications—all invaluable in the search for paid employment.
- Jobless people must be offered challenging work and proper support. It is essential to make voluntary work attractive by offering a choice of tasks and a chance of personal responsibility. It is equally important not to exploit the vulnerability of unemployed people by depriving them of the training and support they need to volunteer effectively.
- Volunteering is not seen to be accessible to all. Unemployed people usually cannot afford to pay the out-of-pocket expenses inseparable from volunteering. And in addition to being unemployed, they are quite likely to belong to another of the groups traditionally under-represented as volunteers, such as young people, old people, black people or disabled people. So to make their volunteering truly accessible to all jobless people, organisations will need to follow more innovative recruitment strategies and make sure that they pay the expenses of volunteers.
- Unemployed volunteers need protection from officials who would deprive them of their welfare benefits. This issue will go away eventually, but official prejudice dies hard, and organisations must be on their guard against it.