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Garry Jones's blog

Fri 15 Mar 2019

It’s not about the voluntary sector? 

I was given pause for thought at a recent event, when a prominent speaker talking about support within communities said ‘and it’s not about the voluntary sector’. I thought he’d simply misspoken so I collared him at the break, but he repeated it and added the explanation that in his view, when any activity is taken on by any organisation, it risks becoming self-serving. I challenged back, that surely he meant this in terms of large multimillion pound corporate charities, not the local sector? But no, he repeated, any organisation, even the smallest can, and in his view does, become centred around the ego of individuals – blimey I thought and thankfully the meeting was called back to order and we had to cut our conversation short. So, after some consideration I wanted to outline why I fundamentally disagree with this view of the voluntary sector for at least two main reasons. The first is that I genuinely believe the sector is deeply imbued with an ethos that strongly discourages selfishness. I simply don’t see the predominant behaviours of people within our sector as anything other than committed, caring and overwhelmingly self-deprecating; if anything we don’t sell ourselves enough. I do think this is reinforced strongly in the local sector because of its smallness, where the leaders remain close to their teams and the public, and don’t live in a bubble of smart cars and private estates. The second reason is our strong governance – on the whole led by voluntary trustees – who act not only as the strategy and policy setters, but more crucially as the scrutineers and conscience of our sector.

However, that said, the speaker did have a point and I think it’s this. There has been in recent years a welcome recognition of the damaging consequences of loneliness and isolation. In terms of impact upon health there are studies showing it’s just as serious as heart disease, obesity and other medical conditions. As such, councils, health bodies and voluntary groups, have and continue to try and formulate responses to loneliness; which on the face of it, is all good and is helping people right now to be more connected and less lonely, and therefore healthier. However, in this approach, we risk nationalising or commodifying what is at its simplest, human connectedness. The speaker’s point was that, it’s in our nature to be social and we miss it deeply when we don’t have it. We get it from family, friends, neighbours, and many other interactions when we work, shop, or just walk down the street. But within society today there are many pressures that push us away from these interactions including time pressures, fear and anxiety, individualism and selfishness, and much more. His point was that we shouldn’t primarily be replacing this with organised activity, even if it’s voluntary sector activity. Otherwise we just reinforce the absence of these more naturally occurring interactions and what we get will be strongly influenced by organisational interests, funding, statutory duties and agendas; rather than driven by the assets of ordinary people.

Of course, we shouldn’t stop doing good stuff in our communities, but this certainly gave me food for thought about not overly organising our work, not always demanding clear outcomes, defined structures, schemes and programmes. It’s made me think about how we could all do stuff that is unstructured, that is simply about encouraging interaction, that’s about building trust and relationships, irrespective of who with and to what end – indeed, not with any end in mind at the outset, without predetermining what that interaction is, or what it will result in.

I’ve no clear conclusion about this stream of thought, nor how you would resource such an apparently vague notion, but I feel sure it will come up again and again if we are to address this fundamental flaw in our fast paced, increasingly individualistic society…