Why Volunteer? (How Volunteers & Civil Society Organisations Can Create the Future)

Posted on
6 Dec 2019
by Tony Ward, Patrycja Jurkowska, Deborah Somorin

Tony Ward, Director of Finance at The Wheel is also co-chair of Chartered Accountants Ireland charity and nonprofit Special Interest Group. Tony and other Chartered Accountants are featured in the Christmas edition feature (reproduced with permission below) on the charity and nonprofit sector.

The article provides a lot of valuable information and views of those featured including the challenges facing the sector and also the very positive personal experiences of those working and volunteering in the sector.

Volunteers and nonprofit experts explain how volunteers and civil society organisations can work together for the betterment of society.

The third sector is the part of an economy or society comprising non-governmental and non-profit-making organisations or associations, including charities, voluntary and community groups, cooperatives, etc. Charities, non-profits and voluntary and community organisations are terms often used interchangeably, and although they can be different, they often overlap.

In November, a BBC.com story about “the lifeguard” – a 22-year old Norwegian woman who keeps track of roughly 450 ‘dark’ Instagram accounts and intervenes to help suicidal users – generated a stir on social media. Ingebjørg Blindheim isn’t paid for what she does, nor is she formally qualified to offer help. Instead, the BBC report reads, she feels compelled to act. While for many this would be an overwhelming commitment in an always-on digital age, and some have questioned the wisdom of an untrained individual working in the space, it is reflective of the driving force behind volunteering and non-profit groups as a whole – a determination to help.

This determination is alive and well in Ireland. Despite well-publicised issues in a small number of charities, the country’s non-profit sector remains robust, with 163,000 employees and 81,500 directors or charity trustees. The value of the third sector to Irish society is arguably best summed up by the degree of Government support it enjoys. Data from Benefacts, a non-governmental organisation that provides information about the non-profit sector in Ireland, shows that at €5.9 billion, Government was the biggest single source of funding to the third sector in 2017. This represented 8.4% of all current Government spending that year – although some might say that is still not enough.

And while the focus of non-profit organisations is on the people they serve, several academic studies have demonstrated that spending time helping others leads to benefits for the individual volunteer. Such benefits can include greater positive affect, life satisfaction, social engagement and reduced depression according to a 2017 academic study by a team of US-based researchers. So, what is the nature of volunteering in Ireland today?

The evolution of volunteering

Over the years, the nature and popularity of volunteering on the island of Ireland evolved. According to Nina Arwitz, CEO at Volunteer Ireland, people now want to volunteer in new and less restrictive ways. “People generally look for short-term, flexible, one-off volunteering opportunities, but organisations have not kept up with this change in demand from volunteers,” she said. “Many volunteering roles are ‘traditional’ in that they require a regular, long-term commitment. Although such roles are very important, a lot of our work involves helping organisations develop new types of volunteer roles and think outside the box in terms of how they involve volunteers.”
Nina also points to the growth in ‘informal’ volunteering, which is conducted without the assistance or oversight of an organisation. A common example is helping an elderly neighbour with their shopping each week. “About half of volunteering in Ireland is informal, and this follows a growing international trend across the globe.”

Whether formal or informal, there is a strong demand for volunteers – and a corresponding willingness in individuals to give back to society. This willingness creates huge potential for mutual benefit at both personal and societal levels, according to Nina. “Volunteering enables non-profit organisations to engage in hugely important work in a range of areas from homelessness and supporting young people at risk of offending to animal welfare, the environment and befriending,” she added. “Much of this work would not be possible without volunteers.” Indeed, Volunteer Ireland’s 2018 annual survey of volunteer-involving organisations found that 60% of organisations see volunteers as crucial to their organisation, while almost one in five believe that their organisation could not operate at the same level without volunteers.

The monetary value of volunteering further illustrates the importance of the volunteer community to the provision of necessary services throughout the island. “If you take the 232 million volunteer hours given in Ireland each year, as measured by the Central Statistics Office, and multiply it by the average industrial wage of €23 per hour, which is the internationally recognised way of approaching it as volunteering reflects a range of skills, you get an annual value of over €5 billion,” Nina continued. “But that doesn’t account for other economic benefits such as improvements to health and wellbeing, which ultimately saves money for the HSE. So, it’s still a conservative estimate.”

Before you commit

There is also an inherent value to volunteering – doing more than you must because you want to and because you care. This was certainly a motivating factor for Institute member, lifelong volunteer and Director of Finance at The Wheel, Tony Ward. “Being out and about and encountering new people is rewarding as it reinforces the fact that everyone is different and for a more vibrant and healthy society, we need to understand difference,” he said. “Also, when I joined Fighting Blindness and encountered so many people who were also visually impaired, it was comforting and of great support to meet and speak to people who had similar challenges.”

While volunteering is undoubtedly a good thing to do, as much for the volunteer as the non-profit organisation and the people they serve, it is not something to be rushed into. The cause must resonate with the individual, and he or she must be able to fulfil their commitments, according to Tony. “Ultimately, nobody wants to be involved in something where they have any doubt about the organisation or cannot deliver on what they sign up to,” he said. “Volunteers also need to ensure that they don’t over-commit. Aside from one’s day job, family and interests, everyone has limited time to volunteer so it would be better to give your time wholeheartedly to one or two organisations rather than spread yourself too thinly.”

It is also important to consider the type of organisation you volunteer with and the impact you might have. Some would-be volunteers may be attracted to well-known organisations, but Chartered Accountants can often add a disproportionately high degree of value in smaller, less-known charities. “Smaller organisations will undoubtedly have limited staff resources and struggle to access a broad range of skills. They may also struggle to get the necessary systems in place to ensure compliance with the increased regulations,” said Tony. “Without taking on an executive role, I believe that most Chartered Accountants could make a huge contribution to such organisations. I have done this many times, from my local GAA club to working with boards. It isn’t only about proper accounting systems but making good and prudent business decisions and ensuring that the organisation takes relevant factors into account when making those decisions.”

Corporate volunteering

To attract and retain talent, companies are increasingly supporting their employees in their volunteering activities and, in many cases, are getting in on the act themselves. According to Pamela Gillies, a Director in the Business Advisory team at BDO Northern Ireland, volunteering programmes are more than a CSR or marketing exercise – they help to create a healthier, happier and wealthier society that benefits everyone. “I am personally involved with our current charity partner, The Children’s Cancer Unit Charity, and I also volunteer with several different organisations in a personal capacity outside of BDO Northern Ireland,” she said. “Such volunteering programmes allow me to give something back to the local community, connects me with people I otherwise would not meet, and to have fun.”

In Pamela’s view, a good volunteering programme is one that is sustainable and benefits both organisations in one way or another. “There could be a perception that volunteering diverts the time of client-facing staff,” she said. “But when volunteering is managed correctly and communicated effectively, the benefits of the organisation performing valuable work in the community will increase brand perception as a result.”
Based on her experience, both corporate and personal, Pamela has some advice for organisations that have yet to step into this space. “As John Donne wrote in his famous poem, No Man is an Island, we all rely on each other, or we all need help at some time,” she said. “What we might consider a relatively small contribution in terms of time or cost can have a significant long-term positive impact on those receiving our help and support.”

For organisations, volunteering creates a competitive advantage, raises brand awareness and helps businesses develop trust with shareholders, customers and employees, she continued. “Our world – and the people and organisations in it – is increasingly interconnected and volunteering is a way to actively manage those connections to benefit a company, as well as those people, organisations and communities you are helping,” said Pamela. “It therefore makes sense for businesses to implement CSR strategies in their business plan – not only for the benefit of others, but also for the success of the business.”

The nonprofit landscape

According to Benefacts, there are almost 30,000 civil society organisations in Ireland for companies and individuals to partner with. While some are long-established, others are newer and have evolved in response to societal needs. At a high level, the sector includes:

  • A few hundred large and well-established charities that deliver services on behalf of the State, mostly in education, health and social care, and international development aid. These organisations receive more than 70% of public funding which, in 2018, amounted to more than €6 billion or just under 10% of all current exchequer expenditure;
  • A few thousand non-profit organisations, half of which are registered charities that rely substantially on the State for some, or most, of their income. These organisations are active in various sectors – including local development, social housing and the arts – and derive their income from various sources including the State (often in the form of service fees), earned revenues and donations from the public; and
  • Tens of thousands of small, locally-based organisations. Many are local branches of national organisations while others are community-based. Few are incorporated, most are volunteer-led, and many receive small grants from their local authority.

The biggest change affecting civil society organisations in the last ten years is successive waves of regulation, according to Paula Nyland, Head of Finance and Operations at Benefacts. “There are nearly 10,000 non-profit companies incorporated by guarantee and without share capital. As corporate citizens, they are subject to the same rules as any other company in terms of corporate governance, employment law, health and safety, lobbying, protected disclosures and so forth,” she said. “This has driven a marked professionalisation in the way they are run as non-profit businesses.”
Also, half of these companies – as well as many unincorporated non-profits (mostly schools and religious bodies) – now come into the purview of the Charities Regulator, which has brought greater scrutiny, new compliance standards and disclosure requirements, and sanctions in the case of non-performance.

Sector challenges

In addition to regulation, the sector faces challenges on several other fronts, according to Tony Ward. These include:

  • An inadequate understanding of the role the non-profit sector plays in Irish society, and subsequent negative media coverage;
  • A lack of multi-annual funding, with many organisations surviving year-to-year;
  • A lack of understanding, particularly by State funders, of the need to carry reserves – and the imperative for a board of trustees to have adequate reserves to manage an organisation competently; and
  • The streamlining of financial reporting for charities, given that different forms of reporting are required by different State agencies.

While collaborative thinking, such as the establishment of the Department of Rural and Community Development in 2017, may help non-profit organisations overcome these challenges, distinct risks remain for charities – both large and small – in the years ahead. However, Tony looks at this in a more nuanced way. “The sector is comprised of charities and non-profits doing fantastic work in areas of society that are overlooked, or where the only effective way the State can deliver essential services is through these organisations,” he said. “The risk is, therefore, a risk to society whereby those most in need of help or assistance may not be adequately served. And the simple fact is that the current model is not sufficiently planned or resourced to deliver for people at risk.”

While much of the solution is out of individuals’ direct control, Tony firmly believes that volunteers and donors can exert a positive influence for change in how the non-profit sector is supported and resourced. “As we know, volunteers are essential at many levels within the charity and non-profit sector, and donors are the life-blood for many organisations,” he said. “They need to be very much part of the solution and need to feel they are contributing in a way in which they believe and trust.”

Trust through transparency

When it comes to improving the reputation of, and the aforementioned trust in, charities of all sizes, transparency is often cited as a critical factor. However, a significant milestone on the journey to true transparency is disclosure – a point on which Benefacts takes an uncharacteristically pointed stance. “Benefacts has a neutral position on most things. We give you the information as we find it and let you draw your own conclusions. The exception is disclosure, where we have a very strong view that more is better,” said Paula. She believes that various regulatory wrinkles have permitted a race to the bottom in non-profit disclosures.

For example, Companies Act 2014 allows companies limited by guarantee that are SMEs (i.e. most of them) to avail of the same reporting exemptions as private companies. This means that since FRS 102 came into force, more than 40% of incorporated non-profits (including regulated charities) now file abridged accounts to the Companies Registration Office. “This is an awful pity since the full accounts have to be produced anyway and are required by funders,” said Paula. Furthermore, FRS 105 permits an even more minimalist standard in her view. “There is no requirement for a true and fair view presentation, no directors report and virtually no notes to the accounts. By now, 15% of non-profits – including some charities – are using this standard, which incidentally has been ruled as an ineligible standard for charities in the UK.

“The Charities Regulator has proposed amendments to the law to introduce regulations that would specify the content required for charity accounts, including incorporated ones,” Paula continued. “This prevents the reporting of abridged or FRS 105 micro-entity format and mandating Charities Statement of Recommended Practice (SORP) for certain income thresholds.”

The preparation of financial statements is universal to all enterprises of scale – be they private companies, government agencies or non-profits – and they have various merits, according to Paula. “They allow trend analysis and like-for-like comparisons. They must be formally adopted by the enterprise and validated by an expert third-party. Our message to non-profits is: seize the opportunity presented by these mandatory disclosures to put your best foot forward. Tell your story; explain where your resources come from and how you put them to best use.”She added: “Tens of thousands of sets of financial statements and constitutions have been downloaded from our free public website since Benefacts.ie went live in 2016. One thing we can say for sure is that donors, prospective board members and, surely, other volunteers as well will weigh the evidence of what they find before deciding to give or to serve.”

About the Authors

Tony Ward, Director of Finance at The Wheel

My volunteering began in a very unexpected way. In the mid-1990s, not long after qualifying as a Chartered Accountant, I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition. This brought me into contact with the charity, Fighting Blindness.
I initially volunteered with the organisation as a member of the Dublin branch and then as a member of the board for ten years. Volunteering soon became the norm for me, and I subsequently joined the boards of Vision Sports and NCBI. As many Chartered Accountants know, finance skills are always in demand, so I often ended up as treasurer or on finance sub-groups. I am currently a member of the board of Sightsavers; a committee member of my local GAA club in Co. Monaghan; and the co-chair, with Paula Nyland, of the Chartered Accountants Ireland Charity and Non-Profit Special Interest Group.

The older one gets, the more one becomes aware of the diversity in society and the different pathways people’s lives can take, often through family crises or encountering others who have personal or family challenges. It is important to give back and assist in any way one can, while not over-stretching as we all have our own commitments.
In my experience, volunteering gives you the chance to meet new people, most usually very committed and passionate for their chosen cause. So many people volunteer in Ireland, and it is taken for granted, but society would be so much worse off without it.

Patrycja Jurkowska, Operations Accountant at GOAL Global

I am currently President of Junior Chamber International (JCI) Dublin and as part of my role, I lead a board of nine directors and approximately 60 members. I work with young professionals, local communities and businesses to create positive change in the world through workshops, initiatives and projects. I am also a member of the Chartered Accountants Young Professionals Committee, which organises member-focused events. 

I always wanted to give back to the community and have a positive impact. In 2017, I was introduced to JCI. After doing some research and attending a few events, I decided to donate a portion of my free time to it and have never looked back. Similarly, with Young Professionals, after enjoying a few events, I was encouraged to join the Committee in 2018. I like the idea of organising get-togethers for Chartered Accountants to learn new skills, share knowledge and network, and I have supported the Committee ever since.

Through volunteering, I learned that what my most prominent motivators are helping others and giving back. This was a deciding factor for my career move. I found a role with GOAL, where I wake up excited every morning at the prospect of being able using my skills as a Chartered Accountant to work towards a more sustainable world where poverty, hunger and inequalities no longer exist.

Volunteering makes the world a better place to live – and it helps me be a better person too.

Deborah Somorin, Senior Associate at PwC

If  you work for eight hours and sleep for eight hours, you still have another eight hours in your day. I choose to spend some of those eight hours volunteering. I know how valuable support can be in achieving your goals, and I also understand that a lot of people don’t have that support in a form they need. So, I try to give as much of my free time as possible to initiatives that allow me to help people in a way that is tailored to their needs.

A homeless charity supported me when I was homeless, and again when I was transitioning out of State care. They later asked me to help with some fundraising initiatives and arising from that, I founded Empower the Family in 2018 to support single parents and State care leavers in third-level education. It’s essentially my second child.

I also volunteer with other organisations. I am a board member at Chartered Accountants Support, which offers support to Chartered Accountants, Accounting Technicians, students and their families, and a member of Chartered Accountants Ireland’s Diversity and Inclusion committee. Beyond the Institute, I act as a Diversity in Business ambassador for Diversein.com, which works to create equal and happier workplaces through diversity and inclusion.

I am still shocked at the impact I can have by sharing my experiences. Helping others is a huge privilege, and I plan to keep volunteering for as long as I can be of help.