Wally Harbert: In Volunteers' Week, the sector should be making room for rebels by attracting older volunteers

The third sector has become part of the establishment, unwilling to allow volunteers to be masters of their own destiny, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

In its wide-ranging and perceptive document Decision Time, the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing questions the voluntary sector’s response to an ageing society. Its analysis of factors that influence older volunteers is particularly interesting. Like all thought-provoking reports, it raises more questions than it answers, and is particularly pertinent in the current Volunteers' Week (June 1-7).

Although it does not articulate it, the report’s logic is that the key task of volunteer managers is to unlock and develop the abilities of volunteers. The skills for this are rooted in community work and are unlikely to be picked up by sitting next to Nellie, where many volunteer managers learn their craft. How can we ensure that voluntary organisations want to appoint and train their staff?

Philanthropic bodies need a large, compliant workforce of volunteers. The most sought-after volunteer managers are those who deliver services as close as possible to the requirements of their employer. Managers who sacrifice performance to better meet the needs of the local community or their volunteers might not be so highly regarded; yet their contribution to society can be greater.

It is not necessary for volunteers to be controlled by a third party. They can employ staff, including expert advisers. I saw this model work well for older volunteers in a disadvantaged neighbourhood 20 years ago. Residents wanting to improve their community were unwilling to take instructions from middle-class strangers parachuted in by a national charity. Residents who would not otherwise be attracted to volunteering signed up, enhancing their confidence and self-esteem – attributes that were in short supply locally. However, they struggled to be taken seriously by public services.

Power cannot pass to local people unless those currently holding it, including those in national charities, relinquish their grasp. Some volunteers who nursed projects for decades were shamelessly dumped in large numbers when charities scrambled to embrace the contract culture. Few charities list volunteering among their objectives. For them, it is a by-product – a means to an end.

Volunteering outside the aegis of philanthropy is largely ignored in public debate; yet many observers believe that, like an iceberg, only a small proportion of volunteering is visible. How can we develop volunteering as a whole – not just the familiar bit that is tightly controlled by philanthropic organisations and is comparatively well resourced? How can we empower volunteers in local neighbourhoods?

With a large workforce and powerful funders to please, the third sector has become part of the establishment, less willing to respond to the perceived needs of local communities and unwilling to allow volunteers to be masters of their own destiny. Rebels must constantly test the boundaries to ensure that volunteering meets local needs. Substantial change will occur when key players see it as the only way of maintaining volunteer numbers.

Wally Harbert’s book on older volunteering, Baby Boomers and the Big Society, was published in 2012

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