Opinion: Hot issue - Do voluntary groups favour the middle classes?

A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee suggested that one of the hardest challenges facing the voluntary sector was to engage with poorer and minority communities and increase their volunteering levels.

NO - CHRISTOPHER SPENCE, chief executive, Volunteering England

Statistics suggest there is some truth to this, but many of the problems are systemic. People on low incomes face a number of barriers. Misinterpretation of the rules by job centre staff means some people are told they can't volunteer. They often can't afford to volunteer in organisations that do not reimburse their expenses.

Go to any deprived community and you will find people volunteering, either informally or by working together in community groups, tenants' groups and so on.

However, if you've never before gone through a process such as filling in a funding application, it's hard to know how to press the right buttons.

Middle class parents, who, say, run a parents and toddlers group are at an advantage.

Small groups need infrastructure support. Groups such as Bassac, Community Matters and so on do great work, but Volunteer Centres and CVSs need more funding for outreach work.

Larger organisations also need to go beyond their comfort zones - it's sometimes easier to recruit a confident middle class volunteer than it is to reach out to marginalised groups. The will is there, but we all need to follow it up with determination.

NO - NEIL JAMESON, director, Citizen Organising Foundation

The most successful community sector organisations in the UK are trade unions and faith groups that are not particular about the socio-economic groups they work with, but are successful at attracting people from different traditions. They appeal to a different self-interest than simply 'doing good'.

Trade unions and faith groups are both paid for by membership, and that's why the role they play in civil society is so important.

In Birmingham and London Citizens, we have managed to build large, broad-based and diverse alliances of mainly working people who are very active in trying to revive and sustain the public realm. Most of these volunteers come from trade union branches, faith congregations and local community associations.

The trend towards consumerism and away from citizenship is a threat to civil society everywhere, and applies to the middle classes as much as it does to the less well off. The Community Legal Service exists to challenge this very unhealthy trend.

YES - MEL YOUNG, chief executive, Homeless World Cup

Charity and voluntary groups are still about 'handouts'. In a sense, then, it is about 'do-gooding'. The motivation of the middle classes is fantastic, but the delivery is misdirected. I really believe in a 'hand-up', and in people taking responsibility for their own lives. This is the way you get real, long-lasting solutions.

We want people to take control of their own communities. Charities and voluntary groups creating a framework and infrastructure, which genuinely allow the people in the community to take control, will find local people in excluded areas leap at the opportunity to volunteer, often for hours.

This was exactly my experience of working with local housing estates and at The Big Issue in Scotland.

At the Homeless World Cup, where we work with excluded people, our approach is to create an infrastructure that links them to society. We set up a playing field, the mechanism, and then it is up to them to take responsibility.

Volunteers join us from all walks of life, with a strong emphasis on people living in excluded areas or ex-homeless people. And the middle classes too. Everyone is included. Everyone takes responsibility. This creates real, lasting change.

NO - BARBARA HEARN, director, policy and innovation, National Children's Bureau

The accusation that the voluntary sector works as a cabal for the middle classes is an accusation built on sand. Many black and ethnic minority communities run their own voluntary organisations and community groups with the express purpose of meeting the needs of their own communities.

Having worked with 24 such groups in east London, not one of them could be classed as exclusive, elitist or furthering the interests of the middle classes. They were there for everyone. There are areas of provision where the voluntary sector is the leader, such as the hospice movement. Hospices are available to everyone.

Engaging poor communities in volunteering is a different issue. Poverty means very little time and even less energy available to help others.

To assume poor families will formally volunteer to help others is overlaying a middle class approach on what is essentially a mutual-support system.

Within a healthy but poor community, local people help each other. This may not get logged as 'volunteering', but it certainly is about making an active contribution. Our understanding of volunteering may need to be revised to become inclusive of different approaches. In poorer communities mutuality, not philanthropy, is crucial.

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