Opinion: Volunteering needs its doubting Thomas

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

The latest skirmish in the battle to define the scope, purpose and limits of volunteering takes place today at Charityfair in Oxford, with a debate, organised by Volunteering England, asking 'Can Volunteers do Everything? Should they?'

In the evil corner, my role as a 'volosceptic' - doubting volunteering's perfection in meeting all the needs of all those in need - makes me the wicked uncle in this pantomime.

Despite becoming a target for hisses and boos, I hope my questions and worries inspire some 'look behind you' thoughts about the role and even the potential risks of certain volunteering tasks.

In the good corner is Davina Goodchild, who matches her name by not only leading the team at the dynamic Youth Action Network, but also by volunteering to help an older person in her community and using her weekends to help run Cub Scout camps.

This no-holds barred clash is leavened with the insights of Kate Bowgett, volunteer development manager at Off the Streets and Into Work, whose early career included a baptism of fire when she had to manage 100 volunteers by herself.

At the first leg of this vital match, at Charityfair in Manchester, that feisty Baroness Jill Pitkeathley kept order as we traded blows, from "there are no ends to what volunteers can achieve" to "volunteering is just another part of the jigsaw of care and service".

With volunteering regarded by many as something almost spiritual, my concerns over issues as diverse as cost-effectiveness, safety standards, confidentiality or the threat to job security are often regarded as heresy and can lead to angry responses.

We will see if Oxford can hold its temper and whether it will go the way of Manchester in revealing another disturbing aspect of at least some adherents to volunteering's tenets of faith: simmering hostility to the public sector.

Yet my common sense crusade may actually be gaining ground, at least in urging carefully considered limits on the use of volunteers. In an online poll of 500 visitors to the Volunteering England website, 58 per cent voted against the proposition 'Can volunteers really do everything, and should they?'

And when the Manchester delegates were asked to vote, a solid majority said volunteers could do everything, but not one person supported the idea that they should. Gosh, could voloscepticism really be going mainstream?

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