Striking a balance: valuing our volunteers

Striking a balance: valuing our volunteers

Striking a balance: valuing our volunteers

Finance | 1 May 2008

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless recently suggested that volunteers strike for a day to make people realise just how much society relies on them.

While this was rightly treated more as a way of highlighting the economic impact of volunteers, than a rallying call to arms, developments at Shelter have split opinion  - and in a much less black and white way.

Earlier this year, Shelter made changes to staff pay and conditions, necessary it claimed so it could compete with major private sector companies providing legal aid contracts. Employees were told in no uncertain terms that if they were not prepared to work under the new arrangements they would be made redundant. Cue cycle of animosity, union rhetoric, failed negotiation, and strikes.

It’s an emotive issue and while your views are likely to be determined by the individual case there are two interesting standpoints that have developed. First, some people take the view that charity workers should not be able to strike. But why not? Surely they should enjoy the same rights as all employees. Any attitude that charity staff shouldn’t and indeed are unlikely to take industrial action because they are in some way nicer people who will tolerate inequity to help the cause, is likely to encourage a lazier approach to staff management issues than should be the case.

The other view is that it is disgraceful for Shelter to treat staff in this way, as if by being a charity it can’t make tough cost-saving decisions, even if it decides that they are unavoidable if it is to maximise its impact.Ken Loach, the film director who directed Cathy Come Home, the 1960s TV drama credited with revolutionising the way housing problems were perceived in Britain, has urged donors to stop giving money to Shelter until the dispute is resolved. Hardly a constructive response and one more likely to further harm the homeless. While Loach has a clear emotional attachment to Shelter and was an obvious person to garner an outraged soundbite from, it doesn’t make him an expert in employment relations.

The attendant publicity and disruption does no one any benefit or credit, but at the end of the day charity employees have every right to be treated fairly, and if they are not, be allowed to voice their grievances. But equally, it would be a weakly managed organisation that felt unable to make unpopular decisions, ultimately for the benefit of beneficiaries, for fear of somehow doing something regarded as unbecoming of a cuddly charity.

Safe havens

There were points earlier this year when one began to wonder how many disks containing personal information there were in the country that hadn’t gone missing, such was the frequency of media coverage gleefully informing us of yet another  blunder. And last month the Information Commissioner revealed that his office has been notified of four IT security breaches by third sector organisations in the last six months. Given this and the fact that many charities hold large amounts of personal beneficiary and donor data, you might think that more action would be taken to tighten  up security procedures.

However, findings from this year’s annual IT survey don’t bear this out. While  88 per cent believe IT security is adequately dealt with in their organisation, only 23  per cent carry out annual security audits, a significant reduction from last year’s figure of 30 per cent. Of those that do carry out annual checks, 15 per cent do not fully implement corrective actions.

The furore surrounding breaches of protocol by bungling government agencies is one thing. But can you imagine the reputational storm that would rage if a high-profile charity was to find itself splashed across the front pages because of a lapse? It is vital that IT security is dealt with not just as a standalone issue, but as part of the wider risk management process.


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