These are hard times to be a volunteer. Perhaps, you’re one of those who’d never even contemplated leaving your sofa until Gordon Brown started hectoring you to help your community for free in the interests of goodness and morality. Then, just as you were thinking you could finally go home and have a nice sit down the new government comes along and tells you’ll be delivering the Big Society in place of all the public sector workers and funded social enterprises that they’re firing or no longer funding. I don’t know who the patron saint of volunteering is but, on recent evidence, my bet is on Job.
One difficulty with current debates is that the large percentage of commentators who rightly doubt whether volunteering is either (a) a fundamental duty of a decent citizen or (b) an effective substitute for funded public services often end up pressing home their point by disparaging volunteers for such heinous crimes as being relatively well off or believing in God.
I fall into neither of these categories but I’ve been volunteering in a formal enough way to get into a government survey since I was 17. I became a charity trustee for the first time when I was 19. The stuff I’ve done as a volunteer has ranged from highly enjoyable to utterly tedious and – with hindsight – from very socially useful to utterly pointless. My voluntary activities have included:
- a day trip to Hull to visit a project renovating empty properties
- helping to edit a 200-page poetry book
- shaking a donation bucket at an Ocean Colour Scene gig
- interviewing Jeffrey Archer for a community magazine
- and a phenomenal number of (often quite long) meetings
What all these activities have in common is that (wisely or not) they’re all things I’ve done because I wanted to. The decision to do these things or not do them had no direct effect on my ability to pay my rent or buy myself some dinner. If anyone asked me to do something I didn’t fancy doing, I had the option to just go home and/or not turn up next time.
Whether people have got enough free hours to build The Big Society in their spare time is an important question but possibly a bit less important than the question of whether or not they want to. As the broadly supportive Craig Dearden-Phillips points out, there’s still plenty of conjecture over what Big Society actually is but it seems possible that it might end being a bit like New Deal for Communities but without the money. In my experience, one of the big problems with NDC was that it was fairly difficult to persuade large numbers of local people to get actively involved in transforming their local communities – even when they theoretically had lots of cash to spend – when they weren’t be paid to do so. While successful ongoing projects have grown out of the programme in some areas, as far as I know, not many of the NDCs’ paid staff have chosen to stick around doing their old jobs for free.
The current figures show that volunteering levels have been stable for over 20 years and the demographic most likely to volunteer is relatively wealthy, well educated and middle-aged. The predictable reaction to this situation seems to be to mock privileged ‘do-gooders’ or castigate the less well-off for their perceived laziness. This is pointless stuff. In our area, for example, members of the Walthamstow Village Residents Association can put their voluntary effort into winning this year’s London in Bloom competition, while residents of local housing estates are asked to do their bit to tackle gang violence amongst young people and – while plenty do so – it’s not really useful to compare one activity with another on the basis that they’re both volunteering.
There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with the idea of people around the country getting together to do positive voluntary activities – or sustainable social enterprise activities – independently of the government. There’s lots of going on but it’s good to do more and Big Society may prove to be a good way to encourage that. What it can’t and shouldn’t be is a mechanism for society as a whole – which includes the government – to renege on its responsibilities to put in place the funded services that guarantee a decent standard of living and equality of opportunities for everyone, irrespective of which community they happen to live in.