Volunteering needs a makeover

Yvonne Robertsargues that doing good needs to lose its Victorian
image and learn 21st century values

Oscars for the unsung heroes of health and social services, open
to public and voluntary sector workers, were distributed last week
– an admirable and innovatory way of raising the profile and status
of those whom, in these cynical times, are too often regarded as
having some sort of personal neuroses because they opt to support

Tony Blair has recently told us that he wants all secondary
school children to become that odd animal, a compulsory volunteer.
This way, he argues, they will connect with the community, fill a
spiritual void and stir a sense of citizenship.

Who can fault the end goal, but the means by which this is
supposed to be achieved – enforced “do-gooding” – requires a
radical re-think or social care clients across the nation will
become the recipients of the half-cocked attention of bolshie
teenagers involved in activities they regard as unnecessary and
uncool. A situation that may well devalue the ethos of caring still
further and exacerbate the discomfort of those being patronised by
this dragooned squad.

The commitment of the young to voluntary work has declined in
recent years from more than two hours a week to under half an hour.
They say they are deterred by the inflexibility of the voluntary
sector, its image and the belief that their time is not best used.
They are also alienated, in this allegedly egalitarian era, by the
superiority implicit in the notion that one person is “doing good”
to another.

What is required to make the notion more attractive to young
people (as well as adults) is a drastic make-over of the middle
class “tweed ‘n twin sets” face of volunteering which, however
erroneous, still prevails and an overhaul of the machinery of the

In 1995, Geoff Mulgan, then director of the think-tank Demos,
now an adviser to Blair, co-authored a critique of charity and
volunteering. He argued that its traditional Christian roots were
being replaced by modern values such as mutual aid,
self-sufficiency and the pleasure to be had from voluntary action.
The sector also acts as a catalyst, able to come up with fresh
solutions, for instance the Samaritans, in a way that the more
managed; time-constrained professional sectors don’t always have
the freedom to do.

So, Blair shouldn’t be flogging volunteering to the young as he
is now, in its fusty antiquated Victorian package. (The implication
being that the satisfaction of the recipient of this “benevolence”
is almost incidental). Instead, he needs to sell hard the idea that
it’s no longer a matter of “doing good” to others but a passport to
an exchange and mart of skills, knowledge and, yes, even enjoyment.
One survey on sources of joy, conducted in 1995, placed dancing
first and voluntary work, second.

Perhaps the most valuable, and radical, lesson the young may
also learn from a fresh 21st century definition of philanthropy is
not one that orthodox politicians necessarily welcome. It is the
sense of power that can come from being one of a team, motivated by
a common purpose, no matter what the odds.

An Ethiopian proverb says that as individuals we are like mice
squeaking but together we roar like a lion. Even a disaffected
fifteen year old might manage a twitch of interest at the potential
in that.

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