Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Can you afford to volunteer?

David Cameron wants a lot of the slack created in his new Big Society taken up by volunteers – he wants to create a volunteer culture. Sounds OK in front of a nice audience or when you hear it on the television; it sounds wholesome, doesn’t it.. But let’s unpick it just a little bit.

One concern (although not really the one I’m going to follow up, here) is that he wants to remove many jobs from the public sector – we know this. ‘Public sector, bad; private sector, good (presumably with worse terms and conditions)’ is an Old Tory mantra and one well rehearsed. But Cameron appears to be going further than this; he seems to want the jobs to be taken up by volunteers. In other words, get the work done for nothing. Fine policy when you’re a millionaire, I suppose.

But the aspect I’d like to follow up is ‘Who is going to do the volunteering?’ To be a volunteer you need the time to be a volunteer. When trying to answer this it’s easy to pick out people who run a scout group or a youth group. Valuable people, doing valuable work.

But I’m thinking about running schools, or managing big projects ‘in my community’ – whatever that means. Big complex projects take up lots of time; and only certain groups of people have the time to do it.

I’m not knocking the idea of volunteering – I’m a member of a Board of two regional arts organisations as a volunteer, one of the Boards meets at 3 o’clock. I’m a self-employed worker, so I can organise my diary to be free when needed. But only certain types of worker can be free in the middle of the afternoon.

I used to be on the Independent Monitoring Board of a prison near me; in many ways one of the most important things I’ve done. I felt it was important, anyway. But it required almost the equivalent of one day a week, and every now and again a duty week came up. On your duty week you needed to be in the prison a lot, as near to each day as you could; and you were also on call. If there were any sort of emergency you had to drop whatever you were doing and speed to the prison.

Only a certain type of person (retired, senior managerial, non-working partner) can commit to this. Eventually I had to give it up; as a self-employed person, I simply couldn’t afford to give the time, free. The spirit was willing the but mortgage and utility bills weren’t.

Hence, the aspect of our Big Society Volunteer Culture is that we shall be increasingly run by a small group of volunteers taken from an increasingly small section (social, financial, racial) of society. This is not healthy.


  1. It all really depends on how people value community and being a volunteer is only one way of helping but again Cameron and most governments on really care about financial outcomes and trying to give people a sense of well being.There is no such thing as democracy it is all about control as the alternative is anarchy! It's all economics I'm afraid. People have forgotten it's not what your community can do for you it is also about what you can do for you community! Sound very JFK!

    Unfortunately, in a world which is now run by new technologies people are forgetting what it means to communicate and are adopting new forms which have their benefits but ultimately society is heading towards an unknown and brave new world!

  2. Your technology thoughts give a bleak view of the future . . . Perhaps technology will settle down.

    Taking rather than giving is also bleak, but rings true . . . I remember one of the Chair's of the prison monitoring board I was on (a good person, whose husband owned a medium sized company) said her children thought she was mad for all her volunteering.

    On the other hand, when I go to, say, meetings about the area I live in, I'm always humbled by the care people have for the area in which they live. Care and community do exist; but I fear the ConDems are out to use it to their own ends.

  3. I don't really trust leaders of groups, unless they lead by example and dignity, and certainly do not trust politicians enough, which is a shame as we all know there are some very hardworking dedicated politicians out there.