Russell Commission charity told to keep passion in volunteering

Tania Mason

Two student volunteering organisations are urging the new Russell Commission charity to make sure its definition of volunteering focuses on tackling social issues, not just on personal development of volunteers.

Student Volunteering England and People and Planet both held conferences for students last month where students expressed concerns that government involvement could take the passion out of volunteering.

Graham Allcott, director of Student Volunteering England, said: "A lot of people felt volunteering was less politicised than it was 20 years ago. Students said they often got involved because volunteering was promoted as being good for their CVs or because they felt it was the right thing to do.

"Twenty years ago it was more likely that people got involved because they felt concerned about homelessness, poverty or injustice.

"On a show of hands, the vast majority of students said their volunteering opportunities tackled the symptoms rather than the root causes of problems, and they found this very worrying.

"Because it has become more professionalised, and the emphasis is on what the volunteer gets out of it, we have almost forgotten that the point is about changing the world."

Allcott said there was a real need to help young people understand society's problems, then empower them to find solutions. "If you want to get more students to volunteer, it's far better to fire up their passion, rather than try to find funky branding or offer vouchers," he added.

Ian Leggett, director of People and Planet, said many of his students objected to the Russell Commission's focus on doing things "in your own community" to the exclusion of needy communities overseas. In the wake of Make Poverty History, he thought the definition of volunteering should be widened to include campaigning.

"There are millions of volunteering days that go unrecorded because campaigning is not recognised as volunteering," he said.

Leggett also expressed doubts that the term 'volunteering' projected the kind of image that would attract young people. "I'm not sure it conveys the kind of vitality that it should," he said.

The two groups want a meeting with Terry Ryall, chief executive of the as yet unnamed charity, to explore how they can help it achieve its targets.

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