“Expect the voluntary sector to feature quite high up our agenda,”
confided the policy adviser working on her party’s next general
Which political party? The answer’s irrelevant: I’ve heard similar
statements from those in the top three. It’s as if they have
discovered the voluntary sector as a magic ingredient to make
voters go “wow”.
The Home Office recently bandied around figures claiming that an
extra 1.3 million people had become volunteers in the past two
years. Another statistic that clipped my radar was that “there are
now more than 22 million volunteers” in this country.
Yet the prospect of “volunteering” becoming the focus of the three
main political parties is depressing. I assume policy wonks are
striving to create a political cocktail that mixes something
guaranteed not to give you a financial hangover with a dash of
voter appeal, creating a taste of caring and sharing.
Of course, as a nation, we are blessed by an urge to “volunteer” to
help our fellow citizens. But the success of voluntary bodies
depends, largely, on being removed from the political
They also tend to be plagued by uncertainty over funding. Hence,
they devote much time and effort to securing adequate support year
after year. While it is important that they justify their grants,
this hardly inspires long-term commitment.
In addition, although chancellor Gordon Brown has made volunteering
by young people one of his key targets, there is a generational
gulf in attitudes. Volunteering now tends to be seen as something
to add value to one’s CV – rather than something done for its own
A neighbour has told me that he is, with regret, giving up running
weekly football coaching sessions for vulnerable young people. He
said he had survived checks to prove he was not a “pervert”,
negotiations over “liability” if anyone fell over their own or
others’ feet, and questioning about his charges’ ethnicity.
He was head of a small business, and the last straw with the
coaching had been the extra six hours a week he was putting in to
deal with paperwork coming from on high.
However, the political parties might care to note that he said if
anyone wants to volunteer to do some of this for him, he would love
to carry on coaching.
Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a Conservative
councillor in the London Borough of Camden.