Opinion: Volunteering must return to radicalism

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

These days, volunteering is big business and power politics. All that free time helping others is commanding considerable attention and the investment of many millions.

But while it engages with a hub, Changes Up, Builds the Future or does whatever the latest instant initiative demands, is volunteering gaining cash, kudos and clout at the cost of losing its integrity, selfless dynamism and radical roots?

The battle for what's left of volunteering's soul is the subject of a debate at this week's European Volunteering Assembly in Wolverhampton, at which participants must decide whether volunteering is a force for conservatism rather than social change.

As a self-confessed volosceptic, I'm opposing Maeve Sherlock, chief executive of the Refugee Council, and have been gathering evidence to demand that volunteering returns to wearing its heart on its sleeve instead of being made subservient to the state through contract culture.

I had not fully appreciated the feminist critique of volunteering, or realised how the left has reviled it in the past, until forced to explore the movement's history through, among other sources, the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research.

But even as volunteering is targeted as a tool for social engineering, gets used as a stick to beat down unions and wage rates or is twisted to the selfish purpose of today's job-hungry youth, it holds a purity of purpose that even this Government cannot demean.

Laid low by risk-averse managers and high insurance premiums, squeezed by the sector's increasing professionalism and undermined by play-safe government and corporate support, true volunteering rises again in every letter written to demand a political prisoner's freedom.

Will the Russell Commission's £150m go to fund those helping asylum seekers who would otherwise starve on our streets?

Will Home Office and Treasury volunteering initiatives support those who bear witness, and lose their lives, in Palestine?

Perhaps instead of gorging on cash to fatten up its own initiative-stifling bureaucracy, volunteering needs to be small but perfectly radical, rediscovering its soul by the kind of faith that can truly change the world.

Working at the margins of society, taking risks and siding with the oppressed is what's needed. But what do you think - is Wolverhampton truly ready for liberation volunteering?

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