NCVO's Etherington urges national debate on volunteering

In a letter to NCVO members today, the chief executive says a truly shared society cannot occur without volunteering

Sir Stuart Etherington
Sir Stuart Etherington

Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, has called for a national debate on the role of volunteering in public services.

In a letter sent to NCVO members today, Etherington says he expects 2017 to be a "bumpy ride", with lower economic growth, higher inflation and the "all-consuming task of Brexit".

But most of the letter is devoted to considering the role of volunteers in the sector and in public services.

Etherington says that if there is to be a truly shared society – the phrase used last week by Prime Minister Theresa May in a speech at the Charity Commission’s annual public meeting  – it cannot be done without volunteering.

"It is hard to conceive that we will be able to run public services in the future as we have in the past," he writes. "We need a national debate about the role of volunteering in the future of our public services. And that debate has to be about more than simply delivering more publicly funded services."

He says, for example, that health and social care services are under great pressure and, though volunteering cannot bridge the widening gaps between demand and supply, it "has to be part of the solution".

He concedes that this will raise difficult questions. "When money is tight, tensions are invariably brought to the fore," he writes. "Is it right for volunteers to do this role, or to run that service?

"My answer is that I don’t believe in putting limits on what volunteers can do, especially not based on ideological arguments about the role of the state."

He calls on the sector to "step up our efforts as a sector and as a society to truly value volunteers, and look at ways to create new opportunities for volunteering to make a contribution".

Etherington says that to "conceive of volunteers’ dedication as a temporary cover for cuts until the magic spending tap can be turned back on and publicly funded workers take their place is not only unrealistic, it does them a great disservice, and it overlooks the particular distinctive value that volunteers bring".

He says: "Indeed, even were finances not a challenge, we should still be involving volunteers in public services because of the unique value of the contribution they make."

He points out that he is not calling for more government-backed volunteering schemes – "we have excellent ones already" – but says that, if anything, it is time for the sector to renew its commitment to volunteering.

"This means investing in the support that volunteering needs, both human and technical. Ensuring we are creating flexible opportunities that fit with people’s lives. Acknowledging that managing volunteers is harder than managing staff and value those whose role this is.

"Ideally, we would make it as easy for someone to give their time as to give their money. It is no mean challenge, but if we get just part of the way there we will be making a significant difference."

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