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August 4, 2010

If you have read my earlier blog entries it will come as no surprise to you that I am passionate about volunteering. I suppose that stems from volunteering being about generosity being channelled and, to some degree, structured or organised. For this reason, volunteering is likely to be something that I blog about on an ongoing basis. So I thought I would start by asking some questions that I don’t have answers to; questions which nag at the back of my mind and which I keep on coming back to.

I guess that a few years ago, a blog about volunteering would have often focused on language (‘volunteering is an old fashioned word and we need to find something trendy to replace it with’), recognition (‘we never hear volunteering being talked about in the media’ or ‘government doesn’t support volunteering’) and professionalisation (‘Volunteer Centres / Volunteer Managers need to promoted as specialists and experts’). Whilst the latter is still considered a live issue; it can be argued that we have come a long way with the others.

But I wonder. Have things really got better? Or does being successful in arguing a point have unintended consequences, or for that matter any consequences at all?

I often hear the word volunteer mentioned in news broadcasts, in documentaries and even in dramas. Local, and even national, print media carries volunteering stories. There is plenty on the web (recently Google even recognised as a news source on volunteering). Most of the stories are positive, and many do not promulgate the previous stereotypes. Some volunteering initiatives, such as Orange RockCorps, have even gained major media backing and a ‘cool’ T4 image.

So far, so good. Volunteering is increasingly recognised. It is no longer something that is seen as the domain of old people and ladies who lunch. But the media is much more likely to make a major issue about a few disaffected young people than a large number of young people doing something positive. The one volunteer who does something wrong is going to be the one written about, not the many who continue to be the lifeblood of their communities.

With extra media coverage you would think that there would be increased interest. Anecdotally we hear of lots of new volunteers joining in initiatives. Volunteer Centres tell me that they have never been as busy. Yet despite all of this and the increase in media coverage, the statistical research would indicate that there has been no marked change in the numbers of people volunteering. Why? Without spending a lot of money on research we will probably never know. I am not about to do this, but do have some opinions. I’m not going to explore them all in depth now (though I might well come back to the subject in the future) and have already touched on them – but would be interested to hear what you think.

  • Over formalisation – in recent years there has been a focus on improving the management of volunteers. This has been necessary and appropriate, but we now have a very formal approach to involvement, and this is predicated on larger and more structured programmes. I don’t always want to volunteer to do something long term that is managed as though I am at work – and I know that I am not alone in this. And when running small local community volunteering stuff I find that most of the good practice is irrelevant. In driving up standards are we in danger of losing the anarchic spontaneity of grass roots voluntary action?
  • Language – the understanding of the word has developed in recent years. It no longer only portrays an image of elderly ladies in charity shops or on hospital tea trolleys. But lots of volunteers don’t see themselves as such; they describe themselves as ‘helping out’ or by describing the activity they undertake. This links into the former point – as we create structure we formalise language. We have often heard that the best way to recruit new volunteers is word of mouth. Are we using the wrong language to ask people to do the right thing?
  • Government – I am really pleased to see that government has become increasingly supportive of volunteering. But this is not all good news. Support comes in two distinct, though linked, ways – policy direction and cash. Let’s quickly think about the money – it is needed, but comes with specific targets and measures (funding to support a 25 year old to volunteer for a set number of hours, but not a 26 year old to volunteer on an ongoing basis). The constraints of national funding programmes can often cut across local circumstances and needs whilst at a local government level there is often not the funding to develop local volunteering programmes. And policy direction can make people feel that they are being asked to do the government’s work for nothing (look at some of the current cynicism about Big Society).

So how can we promote and encourage more volunteering without putting people off?

  1. Well, you packed a lot in your article! Lots of food for thought. I think more and more people nowadays want to “make a difference” (if we are talking about language) whether it is on a local level or an international level, From those who deliver the meals on wheels to the elderly to those who save up and go and coach much needed sport abroad, they all share the same ideal in that they want to give some of themselves so that others can benefit. These individuals are generous spirits and can see that we all need to help each other.

    I see your point about spontaneous unstructured volunteering and I am sure it has its place but we also need to structure some schemes, so that both the volunteers and those who they help can know what to expect and maximum benefit all round can be gained. For example, if you are going abroad to teach in a township school for disadvantaged kids, they need to know that you will stay for a whole term so that you can get to know them and see through projects with them. You need to know that whilst you are there, you will have accommodation, food and time off. It makes it easier all round if both sides know what to expect. If you just turned up and did a few days, the impact of your involvement would be negligible.

    It looks like the Government may be about to help out those who want to volunteer abroad and cant afford it (let’s face it, so far volunteerism has been very much in the domain of the middle classes). The new International Citizen Service claims that it will be funding 1,000 means tested 18/25 years olds to volunteer abroad, and 250 older people. Full details are not yet available and whilst this may appear a drop in the ocean, for 1,250 people next year they will hopefully have the opportunity of a lifetime to “do something different”, “make a difference” and participate in a mutual exchange of benefits with the countries that they visit.

    In addition to the sports coaching, teaching and care placements in South Africa on the website (, we have a new project due to go onto the site this week where we need 4 volunteers to assist teachers in a school from 8am to 4pm, then coach sport 4pm-5pm. The school is located in the Rift Valley, Kenya and volunteers will stay for a whole term. A 12 week term will cost £1,950 (to include airport transfers, accommodation, food) This school is located in a very poor, rural area where Aids has had a serious impact.

  2. Thanks for your comment Jill.

    I’m certainly not against structured volunteering programmes; I have worked with and supported them for a long time.

    I think that my concern was to bring some balance. Certainly in the UK there has been a lot of focus on the importance of professional volunteer management and the structure of volunteering schemes within organisations. I am concerned that this focus by national, regional and local volunteering specialists creates a 2 tier volunteering world – one that is able to tick all the boxes and get support, the other which is small, more informal and somehow looked down on. Yet we all aware that it is often these small things that can blossom into cutting edge and creative new organisations.

    Thanks for telling us about your work, I hope that you are able to find the additional volunteers you need for your coming activities.

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