Making us Anxious and Making ‘Volunteering’ Compulsory

First published in Huffington Post

The latest Citizenship Survey found that ‘just’ 39% of people did some volunteering. While this is the lowest for a decade, I have to say it sounds rather high to me. It all depends on what you mean by volunteering I suppose. Does every act of kindness deserve the label? A more meaningful poll conducted for the Hansard Society found 90% of respondents had no intention of involving themselves in their community. According to Dr Ruth Fox, this suggests that people ‘are not very altruistic. It is self-interest that motivates them to action – when an issue affects them or their community in a personal way.’

Perhaps that’s why 250,000 people applied to volunteer at the London 2012 Olympic Games? They just wanted to be a part of it – understandable given the difficulty and expense of getting hold of a ticket. Or maybe it’s the anxieties that seem to accompany every volunteering initiative, and the associated vetting regimes, that are so off-putting. Officials at the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog), were keen to reassure the parents ofYoung Games Makers of their being ‘selected appropriately and safeguarding them properly’. Little wonder there will be just 2,000 under-18s of the 70,000 volunteers showing spectators to their seats and looking after those elite competitors. They might miss out on the experience of a lifetime, but better safe than sorry eh?

While the youngest are being ‘safeguarded’ from the supposed dangers of volunteering, others are, according to John Harris in The Guardian, ‘being volunteered‘ for dead-end jobs in return for £67.50 a week Job Seekers Allowance. But what about interns working for charities? According to Tanya de Grunwald, interns are not volunteers and ‘it is unfair to expect them to work for free. Even if it is for a good cause.’ But – whatever the arguments about social mobility – surely the charity sector is the one place where you might expect to volunteer your time for the greater good, and not get paid for it?

Tessa Jowell has, quite rightly, criticised the coalition government for failing to implement its promised new culture of voluntarism. But Labour’s alternative: ‘a properly worked-out plan to implement the big society across government’ rather misses the point. It is the top-heaviness of the big society, its obsession with institution building, that has turned it into something officious, involuntary and so removed from the society that the rest of us live in. Doing a better top-down job of it can surely only make things worse?

The debate about library closures, as local authorities desperately try to make savings, is pertinent here. While authors like Zadie Smith and Philip Pullman front campaigns to save libraries, it is also an opportunity for residents to take them over. While the old-fashioned library – a place for reading books – should be defended as a public good, local libraries (the one’s being defended) are effectively community centres already. To be blunt, these hubs of distracting activity are the last place you’d go to get a bit of peace, or to study or read a book. So why not hand them over to communities to run themselves? While there have been endless discussions about the role of volunteers in public services, in the Big Society, and in the workplace, the riots have added yet another dimension.

For Cameron, the tens of thousands of teenagers taking part in the National Citizen Service pilots over the next couple of years aren’t enough. He now wants every teenager to take part. According to a recent survey, three quarters of respondents think the scheme should be made compulsory. While Cameron is right to remind those prone to riot that they ‘can make a difference in their communities and that real fulfilment comes not from trashing things or being selfish but by building things and working with others’, is compulsory ‘volunteering’ really going to make any difference?

It is reported that youth volunteering is on the decline because of cuts to government-funded programmes. But surely it is this distorting of volunteering, turning it into a plaything of political rhetoric and an object of national policy, that is really putting the kids off. The case against, posited in a poll by the New Local Government Network , puts it rather well:

By forcing people to take part, government would be working against the very principles of voluntarism and activism it wants to instil.

Apparently, young people taking part in the Hackney pilot, were quickly shepherded away as rioters threatened to take to the streets. However well-meaning this sort of thing it just isn’t cut out to address what are profound social problems. And the point of volunteering, lest we forget, is that it is voluntary. A point I will be making at Doing it for charity? next weekend.

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