A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
Several times recently I have had cause to ponder the issue of things we can access free of charge. Generally, though not exclusively, when I say ‘we’ I’m referring to the voluntary and community sector (VCS). Let me explain…
It seems that the run up to the festive season is also the season of surveys, particularly by membership or infrastructure organisations, as, prior to deciding next year’s offer, they (very sensibly) assess the value of their services to those to whom they’ve been made available. And yes, I know that the end of that sentence could seem a bit long-winded, but I wasn’t just referring to organisations that have accessed services; sometimes, it’s useful for infrastructure bodies to know why people haven’t used their services, too.
Membership surveys in particular need to be evaluated with a carefully sceptical eye: the people who have completed them probably feel they’re getting good value for money, and have said at least vaguely complimentary things about them because they want them to continue.
Moreover, the person filling in the form is quite often the one who is the key contact for such memberships, which can be anyone in roles as varied as CEO, administrator, or finance officer, who may well not be the person who makes the most use of the services on offer. In larger organisations they may well not be aware who has engaged in what ways with their membership body. Those who aren’t aware, or who haven’t engaged, are much less likely to complete the survey, thus further skewing the results.
Regardless of who responds to such surveys, people hardly ever say they want to pay more for what they currently get – so it’s very important for infrastructure bodies to get their fees right first time, or else they face not being cost-effective, imperilling their own sustainability. The alternative – putting up their prices – looks like offering less for more, which is exactly the opposite of the mantra that has driven service delivery in all sectors in the past three years.
The recent experiences of several organisations I know of show that the services that people like best are the ones they don’t have to pay any extra for, but are contained within their membership fee. (Very reasonable, and not at all surprising.) This might be a feature that is mirrored in the rise over recent years in popularity in all-inclusive holidays, which allow some people to maximise what they get, at the expense of those who are satisfied with less demanding appetites.
Free for all?
So is it then a logical step that people will want services that are completely free of charge, beyond the scope of membership or other fees? This question isn’t as simple to answer as you’d think, especially with reference to events and training.
First, there’s the issue of personal convenience for the delegates. Of course it won’t matter if they sign up for an event but then don’t go – it’s already been paid for, hasn’t it, so no-one’s losing out? This is especially true if something apparently more important/ urgent/ interesting crops up: it’s much easier to go back on a commitment to attend something if you’re not going to have to pay up later. Out of sight, out of mind.
At PYL we usually operate events on the ten per cent rule: this is the proportion of people who will sign up for any activity and not show up, for any number of perfectly valid reasons. It helps us to manage our delegate numbers, and to make sure those who want to come to something get a chance to do so, and it applies equally for paid-for as well as free events.
But increasingly, it seems that we – and other organisations – are seeing a greater than ten per cent drop out if the event is free. Increasing pressure of work makes people prioritise more strictly, pushing a free event down the list. If they have to raise a purchase order number, or pay an invoice, and justify payment to their manager, maybe people think twice about dropping out.
Moreover, one of the features that make a commodity valuable is its rarity in the market. If for some reason – for example, a programme of fully-funded activities – makes a plethora of free training and events available, then careful thought needs to be given to the delivery of such a programme, to make sure that people recognise the value of individual sessions.
From the delegate’s point of view, there may also be a chance that because something is free, the content or the delivery might be of lower quality; surely, you get what you pay for? In reality, the factors that enable umbrella bodies to offer free activities vary, but are usually the result of some additional funding: I know of no membership body in the children, young people and families VCS – and I suspect this to be true of any sector – whose membership fees cover the core running costs of their organisation, or even come close to doing so. The percentage contribution of membership fees will vary, but are typically 30%-40%. Most organisations have to acquire a combination of funding streams to deliver activities and fund their day to day existence.
So next time you’re thinking about going to an event, and it’s free, remember this: someone’s put in a lot of effort to plan and deliver it, with the delegates’ best experience in mind. Have a look at the programme and make a judgement about its usefulness to you – and then remember that judgement when you’re wondering whether to drop out after all. If you really can’t make it, maybe a colleague can benefit instead…?
Helen Hibbert – Partnership for Young London
Image (above left) credit: Craig Parylo