Tuesday 31 August 2010

Volunteering; where going?

So what are the facts around volunteering? There is reliable data now from the 80's and this consistently shows volunteering levels are very stable over time, at around 40-45% of people volunteering at least once a year, with around 25% at least once a month.

We also know that the great bulk of volunteering and giving is concentrated in a small subset of the population. Recent research by the Third Sector Research Centre showed two-thirds of unpaid help is given by around 7% of the population. And not surprisingly most of this is the well educated middle class. And of course these people live in wealthier areas, not deprived ones.

So that's a challenge for the Government's aim to massively increase volunteering . If volunteering levels have been stable against the last decade of extra spending on volunteering how will cuts increase volunteering? And if volunteering needs to be stimulated how will that happen in areas it is needed most, not those where it is now concentrated ?

This then is the challenge that faces Government initiatives and bodies like The Big Society Network. They have determined on a strategy that goes direct to individuals rather than using the established networks of volunteering organisations (CSV, BTCV, V etc). They also want to work direct in communities, again not using established community networks like the Development Trusts or Community Hubs that are being developed through the Communitybuilders programme.

Perhaps the existing structures appear too conventional and established? They have certainly not been used to develop strategy or plan action. But not using the established experience of decades of work both In communities and in volunteering is likely to prove fatal to ambition.

It is interesting how MPs often see the country through the prism of their own constituencies. People like Frank Field go on about Birkenhead. So David Cameron's own patch in West Oxfordshire has a very high level of civic engagement. Charlbury has a plethora of clubs and societies, charity events and functions. No Saturday is complete without our coffee morning or raffle. I suspect the level of volunteering in Charlbury and Chipping Norton is extraordinarily high. But that is also one of the most affluent parts of the country. Compare my other patch in Brixton and the same cannot be said. And if the ambitions of Big Society to grow volunteering and civic engagement are to work then it is places like Brixton that must see an explosion of involvement. It would be good to see this; and the Council's Co-operative experiment will be instructive.

It is time that the expertise of the sector was put to use to achieve it. An instructive tale told to me when I was in the States in March should be a warning. Bush enters The White House first term with grand plans to ramp up civic engagement and get more Americans volunteering. He brought with him mates and contacts from his circle in Texas or on the campaign trail. They ignored existing non-profit organisations because they had the brash arrogance of newcomers who think they can do it all themselves. Well, after nine months nothing was happening and Bush had to call in the experts from the existing structures to rescue his plans. So we shall see.

But now to Devon. I have been having a marvellous relaxing time in Hope Cove. Let me bring you highlights!

Hope Cove

Julian doing a Bond impersonation (he thinks) after coming 3rd in the Raft Race!

Hound on the cliffs


Anonymous said...


You tell us that volunteering has been flat for years, and yet you also confirm that the last decade has seen extra spending on volunteering.

Surely it's not surprising that Government initiatives aren't focusing on existing volunteering networks which, based on your statements, have failed to take any advantage of the previous increases in spending.
If they really were the experts how come they've failed to change behaviour despite more funding?

Or were you being ironic?

David Floyd said...

Well, neither the previous government not the current one have successfully outlined any clear social benefit that's delivered by an increase in volunteering other than an increase in volunteering.

Many of the volunteering opportunities delivered by V are not significantly different to local authority and voluntary sector youth activities that young people take part in recreationally.

In fact, aside from the projects they find directly, V accredit 'volunteering' activities that actually are youth activities that have been delivered for years but just weren't previously described as volunteering.

But then, you cite coffee mornings as examples of volunteering whereas some young people who organise a party for their mates probably aren't viewed as volunteers but what they're doing serves a fairly similar function as organising a coffee morning does for older people.

For these reasons and others, % levels of participation in volunteering aren't very interesting, what's more interesting is what volunteers manage to do and - in the case of Big Society - whether the withdrawal of state support will enable volunteers to deliver more or less, and which groups in society will suffer or benefit from these changes.

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