2005 is the Year of the Volunteer – and if you listen to the UK government, altruism has never been so good for you. Feeling a little low after the return to work? Still haven’t got around to joining the gym? Need to lose a bit of weight, or gain a few pounds of self-esteem? Then volunteering is for you.
It may seem a little odd to sell good deeds on the basis of individual self-interest. It is a sign that the government has little faith in our ability to manage our own behaviour or relations with each other, never mind engage with the ‘big issues’ of the wider world, that it should define our motivations so narrowly. The Year of the Volunteer’s website even suggests that volunteering could help to get you out of bed in the morning: ‘improving someone’s life is also a pretty powerful motivator.’ (1)
Launched by home secretary Charles Clarke and chancellor Gordon Brown at the Local Heroes awards ceremony on 10 January 2005, there was more than a little humbug in the latest installment of the government’s ‘civil renewal’ agenda. For Clarke, volunteering ‘builds confidence and skills, raises self-esteem and self-worth’ (2). The government’s aptly named ‘More Than Good Intentions’ report, published to coincide with the first ‘Health Month’ in January 2005, claimed that volunteering is good for your mental and physical health (3).
Officials are worried that young people will want to know what’s in volunteering for them. A government survey found that a quarter of young people would be put off getting involved without some pecuniary award. The government subsequently established the Russell Commission, which was charged with turning around the low levels of voluntary work among young people.
Announcing the setting up of the Russell Commission, then Home Secretary David Blunkett said that young people are often put off by voluntary work because it seems ‘too complicated and confusing’ (4). Officials are now rumoured to be considering proposals for paying volunteers, with the Home Office minister Hazel Blears already endorsing the idea (5). The upcoming Youth Green Paper has been delayed until the Russell Commission reports its findings early in March 2005 (6).
A volunteering industry is booming. A study conducted by researchers at Essex University found an association between voluntary work and ‘life satisfaction’ (7). And activity is frenetic, as organisations such as Volunteering England (8) develop codes of conduct in an apparent bid to professionalise selflessness in good time for ‘Volunteers Week’ in June 2005, and ‘Make a Difference Day’ in October 2005.
But this cost-benefit approach takes the life out of genuine volunteering – which involves helping somebody else for their benefit, or for the sake of broader moral or political goals. And volunteering is supposed to be, well, voluntary, rather than the result of official carrots or sticks. The government machine is trying to reconnect society from the top down, rather than allowing people to build from the bottom up. At a conference earlier this month the chancellor pledged to recruit a million young volunteers from what he described as a ‘goodwill Mountain’ (9), and was cynical enough to exploit the Asian tsunami disaster in search of some ersatz revival of community spirit (10).
It is impossible to reconnect society through these kinds of bureaucratic initiatives, in the absence of a broader vision that might inspire and cohere it. In the government’s desperation to get us involved we are not only being patronised, but volunteering as an intrinsically worthwhile pursuit is being defined out of existence.
When helping others is explicitly promoted as a route to achieving your New Year’s goals you know something is amiss. But volunteering is more than a lifestyle choice. Those who do work for free in the interests of their local neighbourhood, or a cause they believe in, are short-changed by this cynically instrumental approach.
(1) Year of the Volunteer 2005 website
(2) Ministers launch volunteering drive, Guardian, 10 January 2005
(3) Report reveals that volunteers have more than good intentions, Community Service Volunteers, 7 January 2005
(4) Boosting youth participation in communities, Home Office, 17 May 2004
(5) Cash incentives for volunteers, Patrick Wintour, Guardian, 28 December 2004
(6) Youth green paper delayed further, Amy Taylor, Community Care, 10 January 2005
(7) Happiness is a WI, choir and charities, David Derbyshire, Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2004
(8) Volunteering England website
(9) Russell Commission enables young people to drive volunteering
(10) Brown encourages young volunteers , BBC News