Volunteers, social enterprise and sustainability

The 'more-for-less' policies and practices that flow from public service cuts and the big society 'agenda' are in danger of displacing paid employees with volunteers.

The implication that  previously paid roles can be taken by volunteers is worrying. If libraries can now be run by volunteers, were the previous professional incumbents wasting their time on 2-year librarianship courses?


Clearly there is a role for volunteer input into social enterprises, particularly in the start-up phase (the equivalent of the 'friends, families and fools' that new private businesses turn to for support) and there's evidence that unpaid input into rural community enterprises can make the difference between success and failure. But is it sustainable in the long term?


Enterprise and employment 

The experience of many successful social enterprises is that you can't sustain a social enterprise entirely on voluntary input. Even The Old Crown in Cumbria - the celebrated community-owned pub in Hesket Newmarket - has recognised that community ownership is one thing, but running the pub as a viable business is best done by employing a landlord.   

Traditionally, meals-on-wheels services have relied on volunteers. But Hertfordshire Community Meals have learnt that large-scale volunteer input is not appropriate for their business model. The professionalization and scaling up of their social enterprise has brought service improvements and real savings, but with drivers employed on part-time contracts, not volunteers.

Towards a mixed model ...

Ultimately, in the current economic climate, a mixed model - paid staff and volunteers working together - is likely to be a necessary route to sustainability. Even Anglian Community Enterprise in Essex - one of the government's pathfinder Health Service 'spin-outs' - employs over 1,000 paid staff, but has 400 volunteers working in the community as health promoters.