Where’s the heart in Volunteering Week?

A state-financed volunteering industry is sucking the life out of doing good.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

It’s Volunteers’ Week in Britain, and so a good time to acknowledge those who, week after week, run local football teams, mow their elderly neighbours’ lawns, or act as school governors. It’s also a good time to expose the official ‘volunteering’ industry, which is sucking the life and soul out of doing good.

New Labour’s isolation has long fed its obsession with building communities. As part of this, back in 2003 the Treasury set a target to increase voluntary and community sector activity by five per cent by 2006. Government departments of all stripes have poured cash into making this happen. The Department for Education and Skills funds volunteers through its Community Champions Fund; the Department of Health offers an Opportunities for Volunteering Scheme; and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport runs a Step into Sport Community Volunteering Programme. The Home Office feeds money into a plethora of different volunteering organisations, as well as projects such as the TV station, the Community Channel.

The new generation of volunteering organisations aren’t fed by the milk of human kindness. The organisation the Experience Corps was set up in 2001 with the government mission ‘to recruit people over the age of 50 that wished and were able to give some of their time to work voluntarily in their local community’ (1). Its representatives, which it calls ‘animators’, managed to recruit 200,000 volunteers from the four corners of the land. The Millennium Volunteers programme channelled lottery money to encourage volunteering among young people, while the (Home Office-funded) Mentoring and Befriending Foundation coordinates local mentoring programmes. TimeBank, an organisation that gives you credits for your good deeds, is funded by the National Lottery’s Community Fund.

Older, more independent volunteering organisations are apparently also being co-opted. Community Service Volunteers (CSV) was set up in 1962 by Mora and Alec Dickson, who also founded Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). Now CSV is one of the main deliverers of the Millennium Volunteers Programme – its top funders include the Active Communities Directorate, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Learning and Skills Council. A Home Office programme, called Compact, aims to ‘strengthen partnerships’ with voluntary bodies, and encourage them to ‘opt into… a short set of commitments’ (2).

The spirit of the thing is lost here. Volunteering is supposed to be a spontaneous act of good will, which is its own reward. It’s supposed to be just between you and your neighbour, or your local school or hospice. This new brand of do-gooding talks the jargonised language of bureaucracy, rather than the everyday language of helping a friend in need. It’s all oriented towards incentives established by the state, not the rewards of the activity itself.

The Millennium Volunteer programme is presented as a route to a job, improving your skills and impressing potential employers. Once you’ve contributed 100 hours you’ll get an award signed by the minister for learning and young people; 200 hours will buy you an ‘Award of Excellence’ signed by the secretary of state for education and skills. Many local councils run a Young Citizen of the Year award, which seem to be dolled out mainly for the kinds of things that New Labour would approve of. One 15-year-old won the Young Citizen of the Year award for his work in Blackburn and Burnley youthgroups, running intercultural ‘teambuilding games’ and other ‘things that broke down barriers’ (3).

As part of the Year of the Volunteer, 2005 volunteers across the country will be awarded the ‘prestigious Year of the Volunteer Medal’ (winners will be awarded their medals by Lord Lieutenants and Lord Mayors in a series of regional ceremonies this autumn). Meanwhile, the government’s Compact programme provides voluntary groups with a badge of approval, stating that those organisations that can ‘demonstrate that they are implementing the Compact will be awarded a kitemark by a new body provisionally called the Compact Champion’ (4).

This new volunteering activity may look the same on the surface, but its content is changed. Is the young man helping out with the local football team because he wants to bring the boys on, or is he trying to gain a Step into Sport Community Volunteering Award, and counting off his requisite 50 hours?

Volunteering is made into something like a cash transaction. It’s not about spontaneous generosity, but about getting direct payback for your efforts. Should kitemarks or the signature of the minister for learning not prove enticing enough, more tangible rewards are on offer. The TimeBank system clocks up just how many hours you spent helping your neighbour get her shopping, and converts these into a series of credits that you can cash in for things like food or secondhand computers.

The West Euston Time Bank in London brings together young and old, and its ‘services traded’ include: ‘attending workshops, companionship, and computer lessons.’ (5) According to the blurb, the programme’s ‘top two Time Bank Strengths’ are ‘heightened sense of community’ and ‘interaction between different ages and ethnic groups’. Far from encouraging community, though, this calculating framework encourages you to watch the clock just as you would in your dull day job. When companionship is traded as if it were cornflakes or securities, it loses its value.

It’s a small step from this to actually paying volunteers, which of course means that they aren’t volunteers at all. In Scotland, young people are paid to undertake Gap Year charity work. The director general of the Confederation of British Industry, Digby Jones, prefers the stick to the carrot, saying last year that businessmen should be refused promotions unless they had done the requisite amount of voluntary work: ‘you are not going to get your pay rise if you do not show….how many hours you have given to a voluntary organisation’ (6).

Of course, real volunteers are still doing their stuff. They will be the ones who don’t mention time credits or medals, and they will be unlikely to describe themselves as animators or mentors. Barbara Wilson, 61, who serves tea in a café in an Oldham park, was quoted in yesterday’s Guardian. ‘I’m very committed to the park’, she says, ‘because I don’t want to see it deteriorate again and because people depend on me’. Frank Cain, a volunteer barber in a Marie Curie hospice in Liverpool, says that ‘it’s their appreciation and sense of duty that makes me want to carry on’ (7). And because the general public isn’t as calculating or impressionable as officials think, some participants in the Millennium Volunteers Programme are no doubt doing it for the love of it.

Although government volunteer programmes could mean more people helping others, they won’t help to create new communities. It’s a state-sponsored performance, which relies on injections of cash to keep the show on the road. In real communities, by contrast, individuals do good deeds of their own volition, out of their sense of compassion and commonality with others.

The government may genuinely want to encourage active and autonomous communities. If that’s the case, it could perhaps celebrate Volunteering Week by butting out.

(1) Experience Corps

(2) Compact Working Group issues Q&A on Compact Plus

(3) In Guardian Society, 1 June 2005

(4) Compact Working Group issues Q&A on Compact Plus

(5) West Euston Time Bank

(6) Pay rises ‘should be tied to volunteering’, Guardian, 20 September 2004

(7) Guardian Society, 1 June 2005

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Topics Politics


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