News in focus: Half-term report: could do better

Six months in, and the Year of the Volunteer is still to convince sceptics of its worth. Ben Cook reports.

Volunteering England admitted last week that it has, so far, awarded only £490,000 of the £2.8m it has available to volunteer development agencies under the Year of the Volunteer programme. Although it blames this apparent tardiness on the fact that it did not receive the funding from government until March, the announcement will give ammunition to critics of the project.

Sceptics take the view that the Year of the Volunteer is an example of unwanted government interference in what is an issue for civil society, and that its targets are counterproductive in terms of its overall objectives.

Volunteering England insists that the Year of the Volunteer, which reaches its midway point at the end of this month, is a success. Although it says it is too early to evaluate how many people have taken up volunteering as a direct result, Volunteering England highlights the aforementioned £490,000 of grants awarded to 25 volunteer development agencies, along with the 13 grants of up to £6,000 made under its small grants programme, as evidence of the "remarkable progress" to date.

"It's too early to make a judgement, but my guess is that we'll come up with some positive findings," says Justin Davis-Smith, deputy chief executive of Volunteering England. "The evidence is that it will be successful."

The Year of the Volunteer is a manifestation of Home Office policy aimed at supporting 'active citizenship', described as a situation in which individuals "create a better society through a direct and positive contribution to their communities".

To achieve this, the Home Office has set a target of a 5 per cent increase in "voluntary and community sector activity" between 2001 and 2006. The 2003 Home Office Citizenship Survey concluded that an additional 932,000 people would have to be persuaded to participate if this target is to be hit.

However, critics of the Year of the Volunteer programme believe the Government has adopted the wrong approach to boosting volunteer numbers. Barry Knight, founder of the Centre for Research and Innovation in Social Policy and Practice, says: "The Year of the Volunteer is wrongly conceptualised and should be thought of in wider terms. It's impossible for the Government to influence the behaviour of individuals at that kind of level. Volunteering needs to be thought about at a local level, rather than from the top down."

Knight argues that by setting targets, the Government will actually deter people from volunteering. "Volunteering is part of civil society, which means that people decide to do it for themselves," he says. "This Government, more than any other before it, is intervening in the voluntary sector to a level that's counterproductive. Government targets are more likely to put people off volunteering."

This view is shared by Neil Jameson, executive director of the Citizen Organising Foundation, who says Whitehall is interfering in an area that is none of its business. "There is a role for government money in providing strong public services - but when it comes to volunteering, people should do it for themselves because then they have a sense of pride and get more satisfaction out of it."

To back up his argument, he paraphrases 19th-century utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill: "That which people get for themselves is better than that which they are given."

Jameson insists there are more effective ways the Government could channel its time and money. "The Government thinks it can do everything, but targets can be a disincentive, in that people become more suspicious. I would question whether the Year of the Volunteer is the best use of public funds when, for example, there are schools in need of smaller classes."

But Davis-Smith rejects suggestions of government interference. "I don't think there's any suggestion that the big hand of government is persuading people to volunteer - it's obviously a decision that people have to make for themselves," he says. "These campaigns can be successful if there's local and national linkage. Yes, we try to get national coverage, but people can also search for opportunities in their local postcode areas."

Zandria Pauncefort, chief executive of the Institute for Citizenship, says the Year of the Volunteer will not bring about a wholesale change in attitudes but contends that it can play an important role in putting the issue of volunteering on the public agenda.

"You have to take a balanced view," she says. "Such recognition days, or years, aren't going to change the world, but they do raise awareness as far as the media is concerned, and they provide a focus for voluntary organisations. They also provide a marker in government in that they show the subject is important.

"As long as the Year is publicised well, it's up to the voluntary sector to use it and rise to the challenge."

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