'Self-criticism seemed to come in short supply from some voluntary organisations'

The chair of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering explains how it drew up a blueprint for getting volunteering 'into the DNA of our society'.

Julia Neuberger
Julia Neuberger

When I was persuaded by House of Lords colleagues two years ago to chair the Commission on the Future of Volunteering, it was my passion for the subject that tilted the balance for me.

Like the other members of the commission, I want us all to live in the kind of society in which you expect both to give of your time to others and to receive help and support when you need it from other people. This was what Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust and a commission member, memorably described as getting volunteering "into the DNA of our society", a phrase we have continued to use because it neatly encapsulates what we think.

There is something about that mutuality, that 'give and take' at different times of your life, that means one does not just sit back and wait for 'them' to do something. It is partly a belief that communities can do things for themselves. But more than that, it is about how some services are better provided by volunteers than professionals, however skilled, simply by virtue of shared experience - cancer, for instance - or shared passion, such as environmental restoration.

However wonderful the professionals, if they have not had the experience, they cannot explain anything using that 'how it was for me' voice. If they do not have that burning passion - for the restoration of old waterways, say - then the enthusiasm needed to make the difficult achievable will simply not exist. Every member of the commission had a different story to tell of occasions on which volunteers played a role no professional could ever play.

We had some unforgettable moments. First, it was truly amazing to recruit and keep commissioners of the quality we had, and I could not be more grateful to them. People with hugely busy diaries gave of their time, energy and commitment beyond anything I could have hoped for. Everyone played a real part, which is something I have not experienced on any other committee: usually the members gradually thin out, and you are left with the steadfast few who really care about the issues.

We had complicating factors. First, Gordon Brown, then Chancellor and now, of course, Prime Minister, had taken a real interest, and we were told it would be a good idea to put in a submission to the Treasury for the Comprehensive Spending Review. None of us liked working that way, in the wrong order, but it was clear that we would be foolish to wait. So we did some intense work on the need for training for volunteer managers. We knew how critical this would be, because they still make up the group that most of us feel gets a rough deal: there is not much of a career structure, little recognition, poor training and definitely no thanks.

In addition, every volunteer-involving organisation in the country wanted to have a special meeting with me. That became even more challenging when I became the Prime Minister's champion of volunteering. This was an unintentional overlap of roles that happened only because we ran late with the commission, but it necessitated a clear separation.

There was some special pleading from various groups, of course, and there were those who believed that the solution to everything lay in more money for the work that they did. Self-criticism and self-awareness often seemed to come in short supply from some voluntary organisations, and the commission was somewhat critical of some parts of the voluntary sector for its lack of leadership on volunteering.

Aside from this, the voluntary sector broadly welcomed the work we were doing. Many felt it was about time that some attention was given to volunteering, unrelated to the increasing political interest. It began to feel as if politicians across the spectrum thought volunteering was the cure for the common cold, and we had to pour cold water on that.

We also had to make the case that volunteering is far from cost-free. We may want people to volunteer for a variety of reasons, but the fact is that doing it well does not come cheap. Volunteers need to be properly trained, recognised, given reasonable expenses and provided with proper management.

We felt we could have spent many more months exploring the issues, but we have made some important recommendations and said things that will make people feel uncomfortable.

That's as it should be. I have not let my role as a government champion stop me saying what I really think, and neither has any other member of the commission. We speak with one voice in saying to volunteers, voluntary organisations, government, young and old people and the general public that this is not easy stuff, but it is stuff that matters.

If we want to change the flavour of our society, we have to make it more rewarding for people to volunteer. We have to make it more of a norm in a society in which many volunteers already do amazing things day after day and others benefit hugely from them. But that means recognising what we have, and thanking people, more than setting up yet more new schemes.

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