Something to contribute?

    We are three months in to the Year of the Volunteer, but will its
    impact last beyond 31 December? It is hoped so as YV05, as it is
    branded, is part of something longer term and more complex than
    just encouraging people to do the shopping for elderly neighbours
    or helping clear dumped shopping trolleys from the local
    canal.

    Within a few weeks Ian Russell, the chief executive of Scottish
    Power, will deliver his recommendations on creating a national
    framework to engage and encourage 16 to 25 year olds in voluntary
    work.

    It is the get ’em young approach that appeals to government if they
    are going to create a new generation of “active citizens” – a term
    that dates back to ancient Athens where it was seen as natural to
    participate in the community at every level.

    The government has allocated £80m to developing the voluntary
    sector’s infrastructure and £5.4m is being spent on volunteer
    recruitment drives. It is hoped that YV05 will raise awareness of
    volunteering and increase the numbers involved.

    According to the 2003 Home Office Citizenship Survey, volunteering
    is worth £22.6bn a year to the UK economy. More than 26
    million people in England and Wales take part in voluntary
    activity, contributing 1.9 billion hours – the equivalent of about
    one million full-time workers.

    Government ministers speak of voluntary work as underpinning a
    political philosophy of “civil renewal” where active citizens
    identify and solve local problems and improve the quality of life.

    This concept of civil renewal has the backing of the Conservative
    party. Shadow chancellor Oliver Letwin said last year that civil
    renewal entailed building a more balanced society by restoring the
    voluntary sector to its proper position in public life. He thinks
    that voluntary and community groups need to take control of civil
    renewal as turning parts of the voluntary sector into “adjuncts of
    the state” diminishes the diversity which people can bring.

    As part of its civil renewal programme, the Home Office last year
    launched the Civic Pioneers’ Network of local authorities who are
    committed to engaging the community and giving power to local
    people. It started with six local authorities – Birmingham was the
    first followed by Rochdale, Ipswich, Sheffield, Plymouth and
    Portsmouth. There are now 15 local authority civic pioneers and the
    government hopes that every local authority will eventually join
    the scheme.

    What sort of changes have they achieved? Birmingham is implementing
    a major restructuring of decision-making processes that devolves
    power to local communities. Ipswich has brought together
    representatives from council and transport and the local community,
    an initiative which has led to better lighting, footpaths,
    carriageways and changes to bus routes.

    In terms of encouraging community members to actively volunteer,
    organisations such as Community Service Volunteers and Volunteering
    England will play a major role in the activities of YV05. Earlier
    this month the CSV launched its YV05 Big Knit project to highlight
    the work volunteers already do in knitting “trauma teddies” used by
    emergency services, hospitals and orphanages.
    CSV chair Dame Elizabeth Hoodless agrees that to turn volunteering
    from an individual act of altruism into a weapon of social
    engineering needs a combination of encouragement and empowerment.
    “You only had to look at the tsunami – people saw there was a need
    and did something. The government needs to set targets for opening
    up schools, hospitals, prisons to volunteers – and then allow
    people to do their own things within those targets.” But the Home
    Office says there is no specific target for increasing volunteer
    numbers.

    Hoodless says that using volunteers as a resource can have a
    dramatic effect. She cites the example of the 270 GP surgeries in
    the UK where using volunteers to help with home visits to older
    people and arranging transport to surgeries has cut the number of
    prescriptions by 30 per cent. “If every GP had volunteers they
    would cut the prescribing bill by £2bn. How powerful is that?”
    And she feels that broadening the scope of volunteering helps forge
    new local links. “When a volunteer, perhaps someone who is retired,
    spends an hour a week helping in a reading class it can raise a
    child’s reading level by a whole term. And going into schools is
    all about developing social cohesion – school might not be a place
    that the volunteer has gone into since he or she was a child. It
    breaks down barriers.”

    Justin Davis-Smith, deputy chief executive of Volunteering England,
    says raising the profile of volunteering is vital to ensure nobody
    is excluded. “There is a perception that only people from a better
    educational background do it.”

    So does it need more incentives, perhaps even more tangible
    financial carrots, from government? Not according to Davis-Smith.
    He says: “I don’t think there should be financial incentives. If
    you ask a lot of young people about why they volunteer it’s because
    they want to do something meaningful. There are also the added
    benefits of developing new skills, broadening social networks,
    making new friends – people have to know that it’s not just about
    helping others, volunteers themselves get a lot out of what they
    do.”

    “What we do is not available through the statutory
    system”
    Alan Barker has been a volunteer for the mental health
    helpline Saneline for five years. He has given more than 1,000
    hours of phone advice, support or simply a listening ear to
    hundreds of callers. Typical callers include people with chronic
    depression, those who have tried to commit suicide and people who
    self-harm.

    But at the end of March he will finish his last shift and along
    with more than 120 other Saneline volunteers, will be looking for
    something else to do.

    Due to the loss of Department of Health funding the line, which
    receives over 1,000 callers a week, will have to close its offices
    in Bristol and Macclesfield, leaving only its London headquarters
    to take the calls.

    “It’s a great shame. What we do is not available through the
    statutory system. And it’s not us saying that, it’s the callers.
    People are going to find it increasingly difficult to find
    somewhere to go for help and support. We take more than one
    thousand calls a week and there are something like 12,000 callers
    who don’t get through.”

    Barker, 62, who lives in Macclesfield, Cheshire, came in to
    voluntary work simply because someone suggested he should. “I was
    thinking about doing something as I had just retired. I had worked
    in the pharmaceutical industry and had an interest in mental health
    and then someone gave me a leaflet about being a Saneline volunteer
    when I was in the local Tesco car park. I went and did the five-day
    training course and have been doing it ever since.”

    The irony of his role on the helpline ending during the Year of the
    Volunteer has not escaped him. But has his experience put him off
    volunteering? “No, I will be doing something but I don’t know what
    yet. I just think it’s a great shame.”

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