Insight: Politicians and volunteering: what's the big idea?

Politicians are falling over themselves to extol the virtues of volunteering, but what are the reasons for the deluge of political interest?

In a speech last October, Gordon Brown outlined his vision of the “good society” in which every person regularly gives to charity and every company has an employee volunteering scheme.

Describing the population as "a goodwill mountain waiting to be tapped", the Chancellor said he would like to see all young and retired people offering their services to help the needy.

Such pronouncements come on top of the £100m pledged by the government in the wake of the Russell Commission to help recruit a million new young volunteers – and the 100,000 already signed up to volunteer at the London Olympics.

Nor is the Labour Party alone in its enthusiasm. A year ago David Cameron unveiled his own plans for requiring school leavers to do three or four months of community service.

Fuzzy stuff

Debra Allcock Tyler, chief executive of the Directory for Social Change, cites three reasons for all this political interest. The first is that volunteering is seen as “sexy, vote-grabbing stuff”. “Politicians like to be associated with warm, cuddly, fuzzy stuff,” she says.

Tim Horton is research director at the Fabian Society - whose historical suspicion of volunteering is well documented. He agrees with Allcock’s assessment, suggesting that the Conservatives in particular might have fixed upon volunteering as a way of projecting a more caring image – as well as fitting in with a long-standing ideological commitment to shrinking state provision.

According to Horton, Conservative interest has forced Labour to “ramp up” its own rhetoric about volunteering – though he concedes Labour’s interest has existed for “a good number of years” – partly because it fits in with its own “internal dialogue about modernising”.

Allcock Tyler’s second reason is that “this government, in particular, has realised that it can’t deliver its social policy agenda by itself - either financially or in terms of understanding, and it has realised that charities are great at delivering social change.”

Kerry Tweed, director of Greater London Volunteering, agrees, pointing out that “the sector is flexible and can respond quickly to initiatives”, while Jason Tanner, press officer at CSV, says: “Politicians have realised that throwing money at things and hoping something good will come of it isn’t the best way. There has been a general recognition that if you empower people and give them support they start to help themselves. This can solve some issues that government can’t help with so effectively.”

Social good

Allcock Tyler’s third reason is “politicians have recognized that the voluntary sector really does great work and it can tap into that for social good.”

That point about social good is certainly cited many times by politicians. Julia Neuberger, Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, says Commission members “believe that a sense of mutual obligation and giving up time for others help to hold society together.”

David Cameron says he wants young volunteers to have the feeling of achieving "something we all did together", while Third Sector minister Ed Miliband said last year: “In the years ahead volunteering has an enormous role to play in bringing people in our society together.”

This sense of social engagement also seems to lie at the root of Gordon Brown’s enthusiasm. In 2005, he said: “the greatness of Britain lies in the great strength of the individuals across the country who give selflessly of their time and talents to help make life better for others.”

Director of the Institute for Volunteering Research, Justin Davis Smith, identifies the “democratic deficit” – the decline of membership of political parties, trade unions and churches – as a related reason for political interest in volunteering.

However, Allcock thinks the Government has not fully realised the potential for volunteering to engage people socially and “break down barriers, regardless of what the activity is”, citing its focus on big charities and public service delivery as “a problem”.

Points of access

Another aspect of volunteering picked up on by Kerry Tweed is its potential to help deliver the Government’s workless agenda. “Through training up people to become volunteers in communities or at the Olympics you can give people skills they need to get into employment,” she says.

Tweed also points out that the profile of the sector has risen – especially after the year of the volunteer – with more “points of access” being created.

“It is also a complex sector and it has been difficult in the past to have a dialogue with it or find places to go to find information,” she says.

The year of the volunteer and the creation of the Volunteering Hub and Volunteering England have all “started to pull different parts of the sector together to work together”, meaning that “politicians are more aware of how volunteering can fit in with their priorities”.

Of course, the cynics will still say it is all about money: the perception that the more jobs that are done by volunteers, the fewer the government will have to pay to be done. As CSV’s Dame Elisabeth Hoodless says, “every minister is interested in saving costs”.

However, Davis Smith, while admitting that politicians can be “seduced” by that idea, says the discussion has reached “a more positive level than that over the last 10 years.” Cathy McBain, project leader of employer supported volunteering at Volunteering England, is also wary of taking a cynical view.

“I’m sure most politicians become politicians because they want the UK to be a better place - and volunteering is a natural extension of that,” she says.

However, she is not entirely sanguine. “It is great that volunteering is in the limelight,” she says. “But we will keep an eye open to make sure it is not being abused by politicians.”

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