How can the government encourage volunteering?

The latest Whitehall initiative forcing companies to release staff for voluntary service may not be the most effective approach, argues our columnist

The government’s latest project to stimulate volunteering will compel public bodies and large companies to release staff for three days a year to volunteer. Can it work?

Many people have difficulty balancing their working lives with family needs. Some, including working mothers and those caring for sick or elderly relatives, would prefer an extra three days at home each year rather than work for a voluntary organisation. They should have the choice. It will be bizarre if employees are given time off work to care for someone else’s granny, but not for their own.

The cost to industry of releasing staff as proposed by the government could be about 1.3% of the wages bill. For someone on April’s minimum wage that represents 9.5 pence per hour. Given a choice, many staff would prefer the money. That would be better for the economy, for public finances and for caring services.

Fortunately, good sense is likely to prevail. The Pension’s Minister, Baroness Altmann, has indicated that she is examining how employees can be given time off work to care for sick relatives. When both sets of proposals arrive on the same Whitehall desk at the same time someone will recognise the need for lateral thinking.

Until now, attempts by various governments to encourage volunteering have been short-lived. What government intervention might increase the extent and range of volunteering?

Currently, volunteering is largely controlled by philanthropic charities requiring a cheap and docile workforce. Less than one in ten volunteer managers spends all his or her employed time managing volunteers. They are undervalued and under-trained odd-jobbers who struggle to be heard by their employers.

Investigations into volunteering like that by Volunteering England in 2008 and the Commission for the Voluntary Sector and Ageing last year, have been conducted from the perspective of philanthropic charities, showing little or no interest in community action or the empowerment of local groups. They have taken it for granted that volunteers are controlled by charities, not by their communities or by volunteers themselves.

Volunteers with organising experience can find working to unskilled and inexperienced managers restrictive. Projects built on the enthusiasms, vitality and authority of local residents are better able to attract and retain them.

Philanthropic charities have firmly rejected the Big Society which seeks to empower local communities. Yet community services are only authentic if they are controlled by local people. Volunteering projects that are firmly embedded in the communities they serve are more sensitive to local needs and offer local people a greater sense of ownership, helping them to flourish when times are hard.

The government should encourage low-cost initiatives rooted locally, run by volunteers. This may need an arms-length mechanism to provide guidance and facilitate the sharing of experience and knowledge. The cost for local groups will be modest and, in most instances, funds can be raised locally.

Putting volunteers in charge is cost-effective and sustainable, ensuring that power is wielded by the people affected by outcomes. This will demonstrate the government’s commitment to the principles of the Big Society.

Wally Harbert’s book on older volunteering, Baby boomers and the big society, was published in 2012

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