Comment: The state can't foster volunteering

We're all familiar with the notion that volunteering lies at the heart of the voluntary sector.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

Engaging in what the political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville called "the habit of association", citizens come together in common causes to deal with things that bother them. Restless agents for change, they dream of new futures and work to achieve them. This is good for the people who are helped and good for the people who do the helping. It also fosters cohesion and a sense of belonging in community. The whole polity is a beneficiary. Everyone's a winner.

Last week, however, a report by nfpSynergy, based on surveys conducted regularly since 2001, announced that the proportion of respondents who volunteer has remained static in the past 12 months, at 19 per cent, but has fallen from the 20 per cent figure of 2004. "The Government's broad message that volunteering is a good thing to do hasn't been effective," said Joe Saxton, co-founder of nfpSynergy. "We need more initiatives targeting specific groups." If he means state initiatives, I'm not so sure.

For a start, there hasn't been a lack of investment. It's at an all-time high, at £82.2m for this year, up from £16.6m in 1997/98. More to the point, there's been no lack of government policies and projects, from the lavishly funded Experience Corps, launched in 2001 to increase volunteering among the over-50s, to v, launched in 2006 to recruit a million young volunteers by 2010. And we learned last year that the new Education and Skills Bill is to make volunteering compulsory for 16 to 18-year-olds.

In our society, collaboration is often stymied by competitive individualism, and distrust of others is widespread. The centralisation of power at the expense of local communities - reinforcing vertical (top-down) rather than horizontal (communal) linkages - hardly helps. Nor does asking government to strengthen horizontal ties: government can create space for active citizenship to thrive, but it cannot foster love, caring relationships or the impulse to volunteer. State sponsorship creates not grass-roots activism but what Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation, has called "astroturf activism". If there's a volunteering crisis, it's for civil society to sort out.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist:

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