Volunteering can help socially excluded people back to work if charities provide the opportunities.
When Chancellor Gordon Brown designated 2005 as the Year of the Volunteer, his aim was to raise the profile of volunteering and open up volunteering opportunities within the public and voluntary sectors. A key objective was to boost the number of volunteers coming from marginalised groups. But with the year-long campaign now finished, can charities honestly say they are doing enough to take on volunteers from socially excluded backgrounds?
A study conducted by the Institute for Volunteering Research at the end of 2004 doesn't paint a particularly inclusive picture. Fewer than half of the respondent organisations said they had enough volunteers in the first place, and 52 per cent admitted that disabled people were under-represented in their volunteer base. This figure rose to 57 per cent for ex-offenders and 62 per cent for volunteers from black and minority ethnic (BME) groups.
Despite this, there are some good examples of charities that have effectively managed to incorporate people from socially excluded backgrounds into their voluntary corps.
Turning Point, for instance, has successfully transformed service users into volunteers on its Druglink project in Birmingham for the past three years, giving individuals the training and development they need to undertake a range of activities. The results have been positive. As one former service user, who is now employed by the organisation, puts it: "Being a volunteer boosted my confidence and self-esteem. It provided me with first-rate training, allowing me to gain knowledge that eventually led me to applying and successfully gaining employment as a drug worker."
And it's not only charities aimed at a particular beneficiary group that are targeting socially excluded volunteers. Housing and service provider Brunelcare is dedicated to older people in Bristol and Somerset. It works with a local drink and drug rehabilitation unit to place recovering addicts in volunteering roles in its shops and day centres.
The advantages, says activities manager Ralph Bellamy, are tangible for both parties. Service users benefit from interacting with younger volunteers than they are otherwise accustomed to, and the volunteers are trained in new skills, such as kitchen hygiene, and can take steps back towards work.
"It has to be reciprocal," Bellamy says. "We are taking the volunteers' time and commitment, so the volunteer has to get something out of it as well. One chap who volunteered in our drop-in day centre left us after six or seven months because he got a full-time job. To know we can help people in this way gives us a buzz."
London-based charity Off the Streets and into Work (OSW) is another organisation working to increase the number of socially excluded volunteers. By linking up homelessness agencies with local volunteer centres, its objective is to provide homeless people with volunteering opportunities.
Naturally, OSW targets some of the capital's homelessness charities as part of the project. However, the fact that it has also provided training in taking on homeless volunteers to more than 70 non-related charities is testament to how valuable it could be to organisations that need volunteers.
"It's about widening the groups of volunteers you have," says Kate Bowgett, development manager at OSW. "If you want your volunteers to be reflective of the wider community, homeless people are very much part of that community.
The people we work with have a much wider range of skills and experiences to offer than charities might think.
"But there's still a lot of stigma and ignorance about homelessness.
Charities often harbour serious concerns about using socially excluded people. They don't always understand that volunteering is an important step to becoming employed or socially included."
The problems don't stop there. According to Steven Howlett, senior research fellow at the Institute for Volunteering Research, a number of practical and psychological barriers still face people from socially excluded groups.
These include a fear of losing welfare benefits, lack of self-confidence, lack of understanding of what volunteering roles actually entail, and the perception that organisations wouldn't welcome people from these groups.
Potential volunteers still aren't feeling encouraged enough to offer their services.
So what can be done? Howlett's key recommendation is that charities that are serious about becoming more inclusive should evaluate the way they involve volunteers, assess where the barriers are in their organisations and use diversity training.
"They should take time to gauge how potential volunteers see the organisation," he says. "There is a trend in volunteering for people to go through an interview process, supervision meetings, target appraisals and so on.
These policies can often look like unpaid work, and this isn't a good way to attract groups that are under-represented.
"Yes, people from socially excluded backgrounds need the extra support.
But the way that support is given needs to be evaluated over a period of time. Volunteer management can't be done in an afternoon. It's a commitment that needs to be squared with organisational objectives before it can be truly successful."