Wally Harbert: What about all the volunteers working under the radar?

The Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing seems to ignore the growing number of community groups that operate outside the structure of philanthropic charities, writes our columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert
The Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing has recently released A Better Offer, which it describes as "a report on the future of volunteering in an ageing society". However, it reveals more about the current state of philanthropy than about volunteers and how their aspirations can be met.

The report focuses almost exclusively on national philanthropic charities, which gives it a white, middle-class perspective. The burgeoning community and self-help sectors are barely mentioned, so it fails to do justice to the variety of issues that occur in a diverse volunteering scene.

The community sector includes an estimated 600,000 informal volunteer groups  -  some say 900,000: they all work below the radar, out of sight of the Charity Commission or Companies House. These groups organise themselves without the need for an organisation - a model that has been facilitated by changing technologies. They are thought to be particularly prevalent in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, responding to the realities of Dorling’s Inverse Care Law, which states that areas with the highest health needs are the least well-served by care services.

Now that many voluntary organisations take instruction from their public sector paymasters, the need for informal groups is higher than ever. Volunteers are likely to find it increasingly attractive to work under the radar and in line with their own agendas.

Below-the-radar groups have always existed, but when the government’s Big Society tried to colonise them,third sector leaders poured scorn on the idea that volunteering could be successful outside the control of staff. These groups remain important because of the sheer numbers of volunteers they inspire and because they operate where formal organisations do not exist. Their work demonstrates that many entrepreneurial volunteers cannot find a formal organisation in which they feel comfortable.

The report does not mention volunteering by people from ethnic minorities, nor those with disabilities. Both groups are seriously under-represented in formal volunteering. Some volunteer managers strive to recruit from hard-to-reach groups but are held back because this increases costs and may not be part of their charity’s objectives. Volunteer managers are often low down in the pecking order and have difficulty influencing policy. In contrast, so-called "hard-to-reach" groups are probably over-represented below the radar.

Religious divisions threaten Jihadi blood on the streets, and yet this report has nothing to say about the role of volunteers in building and sustaining cohesive communities. Volunteers are portrayed as the handmaidens of charities, with strictly limited objectives.

Researchers at the University of Southampton have described some large philanthropic charities as paternalistic and predatory, seizing opportunities to work in disadvantaged neighbourhoods but retreating when funds run out, creating distrust and weakening community structures. Ill-judged public funding can disempower local people.

The skills needed by staff are not addressed in the report, nor is the impact of the contract culture on recruitment. Models in which staff serve as advisers, rather than controllers, are not mentioned. The offer made in this report does not promise well for volunteers, many of whom will decide to stay under the radar.

Wally Harbert's book about volunteering, Baby Boomers and the Big Society, was published in 2012

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