Returned Volunteer Action from 1966 to 2006: an assessment of the life cycle of the fly in the ointment of the British Returner Volunteer Programme

Stephen Butters (former trustee of the RVA)
25 April 2010


Returned Volunteer Action began its life as a cluster of support groups for former overseas volunteers - most returning from VSO schemes, others from the smaller “sending agencies”. This informal network was institutionalised in 1966 as the Volunteer Over-Seas Association (VOSA Ltd) and VOSA adopted the brand name of Returned Volunteer Action (RVA) in 1973.  Responding to the success of President Kennedy’s Peace Corps (itself modelled on VSO) in 1965 the UK Government had established the British Volunteer Programme (BVP), a state-funded support agency for half a dozen overseas volunteering agencies.  This sponsored cluster settled down into a group of four sending agencies plus RVA which represented returners.
Representatives of RVA had a substantial voice, in a kind of trade union role, in promoting the interests of both current and returned volunteers from its allocated seats on BVP’s Council and Executive Committee.  Broadly speaking, RVA’s mission was to be a counterweight to the sending agencies (especially VSO) which wanted to “run the whole show”.  RVA challenged what its members saw as neo-colonialism in the practices of many development aid institutions. In addition it provided information and other routine services to members and enquirers; and in due course it built a position as a provider of courses for recent returners - paid for by the BVP agencies.  The organisation faced pressures from its commitments to maintain constructive relationships with its members, its sending agency “employers” and the government’s overseas development ministry.  These competing pressures posed hard choices for policy, style and the “business plan”.  This paper reviews the record of the evolution of the organisation as it interacted with its environment over four decades insofar as this is covered by the RVA Archive recently deposited at the LSE Library.
The outline of RVA’s story is well documented: a lively membership of some 1000 sustained flourishing local and national activities through the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s.  The organisation was squeezed out of its official positions in the BVP apparatus in the early 1980s.  It subsequently lost training contracts and other funding sources.  During the later 1980s and much of the 1990s it lived on gradually declining project funding from sponsors such as the European Commission; and from 1997 to 2006 it faded away after losing all its paid staff and most of its membership.  We pose the questions: how far was this rise-flourish-fade life cycle determined by political trends in the British Volunteer Programme between 1966 and 2006? and how far could critical turning points be attributed to organisational strategy and leadership?
Through the later 1960s, the seventies and eighties, RVA functioned (at least in part) as a fly in the ointment of the councils of the British Volunteer Programme.  On the one hand it was trusted - to an extent - to look after the BVP’s Secretariat as well as provide training for returners.  On the other hand some agencies, notably VSO, were opposed to RVA’s efforts to influence policy.  We will examine the suggestion that senior figures in the sending agencies drove out the organisation from the BVP and that this action ended its role as a member representing voluntary organisation.

Geographical area: