Opinion: Musings at the end of a whizz-bang year

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

As we head for the end of the Year of the Volunteer, where better to take soundings than the front line, at a Q&A panel session before more than 100 volunteer managers brought together by Derby Volunteer Centre, with help from ChangeUp.

Launched into the world with far too little warning, Chancellor Gordon Brown's whizz-bang initiative was a good example of this Government's internal struggle for control of the social inclusion agenda. But it's not been all bad. Interest from potential volunteers is certainly up, up, up - 275 per cent for one network - although meeting that demand, or just responding to referrals from the doit.org.uk website, can lag a little behind.

But the Derby discussion suggests there remains a worrying gap between volunteering's reality and the Government's understanding about what volunteering groups around the country - big or small, organised or informal - really need if they are to do a job everyone agrees is vital.

Take the criminal record check, for example. It's importance is clear, but even though it is surely only one factor in a comprehensive risk assessment, it remains a problem - from the time needed to carry one out (just enough delay to put off a volunteer) to its lack of portability and the limited training for groups to deal with disclosed information.

Then there's the new Investors in Volunteers management standard, which looks likely to cost volunteering groups up to £1,000 to achieve. This is well beyond the means of many small charities, yet acquiring the standard could become a hurdle they will have to jump to secure significant central funding in the future. If Investors in Volunteers is so important, where's the cash?

All this leaves aside how the high and mighty, from Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell to Lord Russell of the commission that investigated young people's volunteering, feel free to label long-term paid work or training as volunteering, eroding the very concept of unrewarded assistance to others. For once, let's pander to the Daily Mail and call it National Service.

Whatever the Year of the Volunteer delivers, volunteering groups are relentlessly cheerful. Take recruitment slogans, from Edinburgh Volunteer Centre's 'become richer - work for nothing' to the Reach retired executives group's 'donate your brain'. Or, indeed, my latest favourite, from the Derby meeting's slogan competition winner: 'Volunteers - every household should have one'.

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