I am really pleased to speak in this debate and to talk about my experience of 23 years both as a volunteer at and manager of a local citizens advice bureau. People volunteer for many different reasons. I volunteered because I was at home with a young baby, and I wanted to get out and do something else other than sing “The Wheels on the Bus” for a while. I was really glad I did, because when I was left alone with that baby, I realised that CAB was in my blood and I wanted to stay there, and I got a paid job there.
Volunteers include young people looking for work or people who are retired. There are many different roles within even one charity, with many different demands—advice, reception, admin, media, specialisms, social policy and trustees—and it is the job of the manager or the volunteer co-ordinator to ensure that everyone is in the right role and that they are trained, supervised and reviewed to check that we meet their aims and that they meet the organisation’s aims. They are perhaps even given targets for improvement and sometimes even brought to recognise that they are perhaps no longer in the right place and could move on. It is obvious that volunteers take considerable management to provide a service within the charity’s aims. Volunteers give their time freely; they are not free.
We had 50 volunteers and 29 paid staff working full time, with a full-time volunteer co-ordinator, as well as the chief executive officer and deputy. Volunteers do a great job. They have a real stake in their organisation, but sometimes, as demands change, they need taking through the change process. This perhaps needs someone to take them through the process differently than they would with paid staff. I would never have wanted to change to having all paid staff. There is a value in the diversity of volunteers—there are people who are rooted in their communities, who really want to give their time. Sometimes I used to find that people wanted me to give far too much time, wanting me to stay till 7 o’clock every night when my daughter needed putting to bed, but that was my problem.
There have been changes in the charity environment. Many charities now have to be business-focused, particularly those providing public services, and they are moving to having contracts, not grants. I think that is a good thing, as long as the key performance indicators are right and are not just focused on outputs, and the charity looks at its charitable objectives and does not just go for anything. That is where the trustee board comes in. There is a need for a mix of specialist and local skills in accounting, business planning, and grievance and disciplinary procedures. As charities grow, they need to regularly reassess their trustee board, just as much as their management. They need to check that it has the skills to manage the chief executive—I have to say that as a chief exec, that was not always an easy job.
Citizens Advice is a shining example of a charity that uses the experience gained on the ground in local communities to try to effect national change through social policy work. We see the unintended effect of legislation and must be able to speak out. That is not party political—heaven knows, I have criticised every Government since 1986.
I want to move on to my local community and the charities there. Not all charities need to be big; many start from local need. I will mention a couple. Embrace is a user-led charity for people with disabilities. To me, that exemplifies the importance of users being involved and empowering people. It is about asking, “What do they want?” rather than just asking them just to take what they are given. There is also the Abram Ward community co-operative, which has projects combating loneliness by bringing young and old together to make items such as go-carts. Wigan Council has a deal whereby it works with charities and community groups and provides small grants and trains volunteers. It has really invigorated the local community so that people feel like a community, not just a collection of individuals who happen to live near one another.
I would not be here today without having volunteered at my local CAB. It led to a career spanning 23 years. That was not my intention when I walked through the door into the manager’s office at Sale CAB. I worked with volunteers and enjoyed and valued their commitment, diversity and humour. I feel that it has really enriched my life, and I hope that it has contributed to improving the lives of those in the local community.