OPINION: Hot Issue - Is voluntary participation in decline in modern society?

This week the think-tank Centris publishes a report which argues that the voluntary sector has become more professionalised in the past decade and more closely aligned with government. As a result, it says, volunteering and "grassroots civil participation" have continued to decline. Is this a fair analysis?

Mark Lever, chief executive, Womens Royal Voluntary Service - NO

WRVS' 95,000-strong volunteer base is evidence against the suggestion that professionalism in the voluntary sector has led to a decline in volunteering.

Along with increased levels of professionalism, the sector now has closer ties with the public sector. However, voluntary organisations are working alongside, and not in place of, the public sector.

The reality is that an organisation working on a national level can ensure local activities are better informed and supported. It can maintain the flexibility to meet local needs, while also ensuring a level of consistency in areas such as safety, quality and efficiency.

The voluntary sector is still a catalyst for change, but a more informed and organised change that can be brought about through collaboration rather than competition with other service providers. Increased professionalism or not, WRVS volunteers are still local people giving their time to help other local people. What can be more grass roots than that?

Russell Thompson, director of fundraising and marketing, Royal British Legion - YES

... but with reservations. There would certainly seem to be a change in the nature of society. From our own research we've found that fewer people are volunteering to collect - the vast majority (49 per cent) say they do not have the time to spare, and many (26 per cent) feel awkward about asking people for money.

But that said, the Poppy Appeal continues to attract some 300,000 volunteers from within our own ranks and without. At the same time, we know giving to collectors is by far the most popular method of donating with the public.

Going forward, we know we need more people in order to continue to be successful. That's why the Legion has embarked on a nationwide "Poppy People" campaign to augment our army of street collectors. We are encouraged by the response so far.

Christopher Spence, chief executive, National Centre for Volunteering - NO

Predicting the imminent demise of volunteering makes for great headlines. It is, indeed, one of the few occasions when volunteering makes the news.

There is, however, no clear evidence of a substantial long-term decline in volunteering and certainly nothing to suggest its collapse. The 2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey shows that volunteering is undertaken and enjoyed by a significant proportion of the population, and that many contribute considerable time to voluntary work.

That's not to say that society couldn't do with more volunteers. The National Centre for Volunteering supports the Government's efforts to increase the number of volunteers and to improve access to volunteering.

However, we believe the way to achieve this is not by spending money on major high-profile initiatives, which often duplicate work that is already being done. The best way to promote volunteering is to invest in developing the existing local infrastructure that supports it.

Volunteering is alive and well and will remain a force for change in modern society.

Richard Fries, visiting fellow, Centre for Civil Society, LSE - NO

Centris rightly identifies a shift from 'old-style' volunteering to new forms of voluntary action. This is borne out by the work on social capital that the Centre for Civil Society is carrying out. There is a thirst for meaningful activity among young people today, but they are more ready to participate through informal networks and relationships.

The sector must respond by using contemporary language and forms of communication.

The structured voluntary sector, rightly aspiring to professional standards - using volunteers and led by volunteer trustees responsible for its ethos - is ever more important. In parallel, as the Centre for Civil Society's evidence shows, there is voluntary action happening at community level, but it is often informal.

With welcome support from government, the sector is encouraging participation in new ways. TimeBank has reached nearly 60,000 people new to volunteering, illustrating an eagerness to get involved - if the approach is right.

But it must be the sector that sets the agenda. Government should foster an enabling environment, but it should not lead. As attempts such as the Experience Corps illustrate, its motives are not trusted.

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