News analysis: Volunteering: the spirit of the age?

Volunteering England's convention found the future looking good.

Davis Smith (right) and Hope
Davis Smith (right) and Hope

So deep was the sense of optimism at last week's Volunteering England National Convention in Newcastle that the organisation's chief executive, Justin Davis Smith, borrowed from Harold Macmillan's famous feel-good speech of 1957 and told the delegates: "Volunteering has never had it so good."

The optimism stems in part from the Government's mainly positive reaction to Manifesto for Change, the recent report by Baroness Neuberger's Commission on the Future of Volunteering. The Office of the Third Sector is putting £2m into a new fund to help disabled people access volunteering and £4m into the training of volunteers and volunteer managers.

There's also cross-party consensus about the importance of volunteering, evidenced by the fact that third sector minister Phil Hope and his shadows from the two other main parties all made the day trip to Newcastle and admitted that they did not have much to disagree about.

Hope told the convention that volunteering was "in a stronger place" than three years ago. His Conservative shadow, Greg Clark, quoted William Beveridge on how voluntary action characterises a free society. And Susan Kramer, their recently appointed Lib Dem counterpart, spoke of volunteers providing the "social glue" of communities.

Despite recent figures that show volunteering seems to be bumping along at much the same level, everyone seemed to agree that the activity was the spirt of the age and should become, in the words of the Neuberger report "part of the DNA of our society". So where was the rub?

In what seemed to be a veiled reference to the Government's £117m funding of youth volunteering charity v, Clark referred to the "logo, launch and lunch" syndrome. "The Government should trust people to say what the money should be spent on, not launch new schemes all the time to replace old ones," he said.

In the second part of his address, Davis Smith also mentioned what he saw as the challenges for volunteering, starting with inclusivity and diversity. The Government's new access fund would help, he said, but getting all sections of society involved remained difficult.

He also said he wanted to see some of the control of the volunteer movement handed back to the volunteers themselves, and that he saw the new century as an era of "co-production", with ideas and actions arising from communities rather than being imposed on them.

But he mentioned another topic that seemed to feature strongly once the convention's formal plenary sessions were over and delegates broke up to talk over lunch and take part in the afternoon workshop sessions: the infrastructure of volunteering.

Davis Smith questioned whether enough money was going into infrastructure, and it became clear in discussion with delegates that when many of them talked about government money they were thinking less about the £6m in response to Neuberger and more about the comparatively lavish funding of v.

One recurrent topic was the difficulties faced by local volunteering centres, which are not centrally funded and rely on local authorities and other funders in their areas. The result is patchy provision that is strong in some places, but fragile in others.

In one workshop about youth volunteering, Tiger de Souza from v talked enthusiastically about the investment so far in the organisation: £12m in grants in round one, followed by £72.6m in vinvolved. But many others at the session were managers of local volunteering groups who had run projects as part of the Millennium Volunteers programme and were now losing funds.

Kath Patton from the Volunteer Centre Newcastle said the centre had lost most of its funding, which had now gone to Changemakers and the Volunteer Centre in Gateshead, and that most of her organisation's staff had been made redundant. "Now v is going to come to us and ask us for input, or to work in partnership with it, when we can't because we've now got such a reduced capacity," she said.

Another participant mentioned the "cheek" of v asking small groups for input when the same groups had lost funding and saw that to be a result of putting money into v. A third, returning to the theme touched on earlier by Greg Clark, said there was too much emphasis on new initiatives.

Whatever the gripes, Volunteering England is taking advantage of a political tide in its favour, and is setting up six groups, with high-profile chairs, to take forward the 21 recommendations of Manifesto for Change. Of the six, it looks at the moment as if the most tricky one will be modernising infrastructure, which struggles to get any new Government money.

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