Rosamund McCarthy: Role models like my mum inspire us to volunteer; the state is only an enabler

The state cannot create a culture of volunteering, but rather provide opportunities and infrastructure support, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

Role models have always been a crucial way to increase the number of volunteers in the UK.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has even spoken of his parents' volunteering as the inspiration for the big society agenda. His late father sat on the parochial church council and his mother was a magistrate.

Although my mum died young, she was an active volunteer: teaching adult literacy, supervising kids' clubs and teaching English to Asian immigrants.

At the time, I did not see my mum as a role model and gave my dad a much higher status for his paid work. But her volunteering provided windows on new worlds: I remember a party for the Indian women who were new to our suburban town. Clutching my mum's skirts, I peeped shyly at those present. I was dazzled by the colourful saris and the glistening Indian sweets. It was an entrancing world that I was keen to visit again.

Neither my mum nor, I presume, David Cameron's, sat around discussing their contributions to bonding or bridging social capital. They just got on with it.

This begs the question of how much the state can do to stimulate volunteering. It can provide opportunities for volunteering, which is what v and the National Citizen Service - the flagships of the former and present governments, respectively - seek to do.

The state can also provide local infrastructure support, which is important, but patchy at present. But the state cannot create a culture of volunteering, nor can it touch hearts and minds.

This summer, for the fourth year, I spent a week helping at a residential camp for teenagers. Working with young people does not come easily to me. Not by choice, I don't have children. However, I am not a natural with friends' offspring.

At work, I aim to be in control and efficient. At summer camp, all I can offer is my clumsy goodwill. My ego takes a knocking as I often feel incompetent and shamed by my resentment of others' expertise.

And then it happens. My professional armour is set aside and the young people crack open my heart. I realise that I have something to give, and I learn as much in one week as I learn in a year at work.

Would I be a volunteer without my mum's example? Almost certainly not. We should celebrate our inspirational nearest and dearest. To my mum and to all role models: thank you so much.

Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity

- Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite

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