How cheap is free?

By Angela Kail 14 September 2010

With charities having to do more with less over the next few years, a common answer to how they are going to cope is ‘volunteers’. It seems like the perfect solution—committed, talented people giving up their time and skills for free, and all playing their part in the Big Society.

But I worry about the equation of volunteers with ‘free’. A number of charities already use volunteers in key roles. But many people outside the charity sector don’t understand the effort that goes into making sure that a volunteer is properly used and looked after. It costs the Samaritans an average of £100 to train a volunteer. Samaritans has 16,500 volunteers—so that’s a bill that soon racks up. And this is an ongoing process that has to be repeated regularly. The Samaritans estimate that the value of the work that its volunteers does is £23.3m. But that value can’t be unlocked without investment upfront that someone still needs to pay for. When NPC analysed ChildLine in 2007, we found that only 50% of volunteers stayed for more than a year. That means that the recruitment and training of volunteers has to happen pretty much constantly to ensure that ChildLine’s vital service can continue to run.

Volunteers are going to be a vital part of delivering the Big Society and an important role in supporting charities after the cuts. But these volunteers need investment and training if they are to be used effectively and safely. This is especially important if volunteers are working with vulnerable people. While volunteers are a great resource for charities, they are far from free.