In addition to all the other challenges currently facing the Prime Minister, comes the news that his attempts to promote volunteering don’t seem to be getting very far. Third Sector reports that The Department of Communities and Local Government’s latest Citizenship Survey reveals that 26% of the population are now regularly involved in formal volunteering, compared to 28% in 2003, 29% in 2005 and 27% in 2007-2008.
On the basis that you are what you do, I obviously do think volunteering’s important. I first became a charity trustee at the age of 19 and carried on doing that for over 7 years. Now, in addition to the day job, I am currently a non-exec director of one not-for-profit company and also take part in what the Citizenship Survey would label ‘informal volunteering’ for at least five arts and civic organisations on an ongoing basis.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that volunteering as an activity freely entered in by organisations and individuals can be a positive experience for all concerned – whether it’s small, entirely voluntary groups operating at a local level or large national operations such as CSV. What I’m less clear on is the sense behind the government’s attempts – prominently backed by Gordon Brown himself – to artificially stimulate volunteering by the creation of ‘volunteering opportunities’ and their particular focus on the volume of voluntary activity.
Surely a meaningful volunteering opportunity is created either by a social need or the desire of some people to do something, and ideally both of these things. I’m not arguing that the ‘volunteering opportunities’ created through funding such as the government’s flagship youth volunteering Quango ‘V’ – set up with the aim of involving 1 million new volunteers – are necessarily not responses to local need or volunteers’ desire to take positive action but the focus on the volunteering opportunities rather than social outcomes of what the volunteers seems to be more geared towards positive press releases than positive social action.
It may not be a complete coincidence that while failing to increase the % of people volunteering, the government and its partner agencies have also failed to make a coherent case for why a numerical increase in the number of people ‘taking advantage of volunteering opportunities’ is a good thing in itself. Rob Greenland has written sensibly on some of the issues for social enterprises to consider when deciding about how to work with volunteers.
Neither those points or mine are a case against volunteering. I have benefited a lot from volunteering opportunities. My social enterprise wouldn’t exist now if I didn’t have the contacts and experience I’ve gained through volunteering. My social enterprise wouldn’t function effectively now without the work of both formal and informal volunteers.
My position is clear. The government and its partners should stop promoting volunteering as an end in itself. They should put their cash and energy into supporting socially beneficial community activities and let the people running and benefiting from those projects worry about how many volunteers are needed and what kind of ‘opportunities’ they need to offer to attract them. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be organisations promoting and facilitating volunteering but it means that they should be far more focused on social outcomes and far less focused on numerical targets for numbers or percentages of people volunteering.