Sunday 7 November 2010

State Sponsored Volunteering

Volunteering appears to be entering a new phase with a more active State involvement or direction. Is this a good thing or not? In as far as we can determine , the Big Society theme implies more people volunteering. Yet we know a number of facts about volunteering. It has been static for 2 decades,levels are higher among more affluent classes and lower in deprived communities and amongst the unemployed. If people are to play a bigger role in communities we nee to drive up volunteering. But how will this happen against a background of massive spending cuts?

2 recent Government initiates are interesting. First there is the report about a London Council developing plans to offer reward points for volunteering. A sort of " nectar" scheme for volunteering. At first glance this sounds bizarre and not quite in the spirit of the whole concept of a voluntary unselfish act. Collecting points for helping out at the local youth club so you can purchase a barbecue set invites derision. And yet I wonder. Perhaps we should not be so snooty. This type of scheme , properly run and managed might just act as a fillip to more volunteering,so why not. It is certainly worth pursuing. We shall see.

My worry is simply that if this scheme is to be sponsored by the State,what will they classify as appropriate volunteering. What activities will they decide qualify for points? Helping old ladies counts , but demanding a better deal for the worlds poor does not? After all ,the majority ofeople who volunteer do it as a form of social action. Making poverty history or encouraging more sustainable behaviour are activities at the heart of civil society and volunteering. So having the local council decide what counts as volunteering is " Big Brother" not "Big Society ".

Then there are the plans outlined by IDS for form of compulsory volunteering for those on the new universal credit. He has announced plans for a 4 week stint of community work. Again at first glance these seem to run counter to the notion of volunteering as a voluntary not compulsory act. But again ,if this is properly managed I suspect this could work well. We know that many people who have been long term unemployed have lost skills and motivation. Volunteering with good schemes run by professional third sector organisations can prove a good way back into work. There are many Acevo members who run superb schemes to skill up and motivate and provide the essential way back to work. But as they say,one volunteer is with a hundred conscripts. So any scheme has to ensure that compulsion does mean people on schemes who would rather not be there and are disruptive. Acevo members taking part will not take part in schemes unless they can be sure they meet good quality and professional standards. We are not arms of a coercive state and any schemes will have to meet our definitions of what makes good volunteering or we will not take part.Acevo will work with DWP in ensuring these plans achieve those objectives; an element of " encouragement" may not be so bad? Lets see

But members will want to work with the DWP in schemes that really do work for the jobless and moves to encourage people back to work and out of the dead end of joblessness.

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