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To volunteer or not to volunteer?

Tue 15 Aug 2017

It’s a staple statistic in the VCSE sector that 20% of the people do 80% of the volunteering and whilst I have not recently checked the statistical validity of this claim, it rings true for most. A relatively small band of folk who have the time and inclination undertake a lot of voluntary work, often for multiple organisations at once and for many more over time, moving on from one voluntary role to another. The biggest band of volunteers would seem to be those who work part time or not at all and those who are retired but still physically active. It’s pretty simple really; volunteering is the gift of time and you have to have the time to give in the first place.

A recent government survey (Community Life Survey) tells us that fewer adults are volunteering than used to three years ago. Again this rings true and can probably be attributed back in part to the waning of the baby boomer, generous pensions, public sector worker generation, which is getting older and less active, poorer and smaller as a cohort with fewer public sector jobs, fewer people retiring at an early age and those who do, having either part time work or other family commitments to their children or grandchildren, who themselves are struggling to make ends meet. The survey also tells us that childcare, caring and other commitments stop people from volunteering and that is understandable. On the whole it is also pretty intractable, with more older people needing care for longer, many people who could otherwise volunteer are likely to put family first and caring is of course the gift of time in a more personal way.

In this context those of us in the business of encouraging volunteers tussle with the conundrum of how to get more ‘other’ people volunteering? This brings us to the number one reason people say they have never been able to volunteer – work. We can interpret this in part to mean inflexibility of work and the fact that more and more businesses are offering flexible working should help to counter this trend. However, there remain a large number of people who have to work inflexible shift patterns on a full time basis, on such low pay that they could not afford to reduce their hours even if they wanted to. And this for me is the greatest untapped potential, for if more people worked 3 or 4 days a week, I believe they would inevitably do more for others, be it family, friends or the wider community. Yet we live in a society that values work above all else and long hours are a proxy for commitment and professionalism at one level and a necessary evil for the low paid at another.

The UK is a rich nation, but one built on a fragile foundation of consumerism, both economically and socially. It could instead be one built on a firm social foundation of giving time within communities, where people don’t need to shop because their time and happiness is dependent on their fellow residents, not the things they buy and own. This is a grand, perhaps naïve idea, but one way to nudge towards this would be a concerted effort and commitment of public bodies to actively support and encourage people to work less and use that time to both give and receive in the form of volunteering.