Wally Harbert: How bureaucrats hijacked volunteering

People will increasingly turn to community groups that offer more scope for their skills, says our guest columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Two opposing forces are changing the landscape of volunteering in the UK. Increasingly, large self-help charities are amending their constitutions and transferring power and responsibility away from local volunteers to centrally-based, paid staff. They no longer practice self-help but have become philanthropic bureaucracies pursuing contracts. At the same time there is a growing interest in new, locally based self-help groups controlled by volunteers.

Philanthropic charities are becoming less attractive to volunteers who may, in future, turn to small community groups which provide greater opportunities for them to contribute their own ideas about how to improve the quality of life in their neighbourhood. If these trends continue we shall see a further decrease in the number of volunteers recruited to do the bidding of paid professionals. Instead, there will be a burgeoning number of small organisations directed and organised by volunteers.

Baby boomers now reaching retirement are less inclined to accept instructions from others than previous generations. They rioted in the streets in the 1960s to demonstrate their individuality. They questioned authority of all kinds and it seems unlikely that they will now happily allow themselves to be controlled by men and women in suits who are at the helm of large charities.

Some volunteers feel disillusioned about the changes taking place in their organisations. The personal and financial sacrifices they made to create something worthwhile out of nothing have been forgotten and the services for which they once sold raffle tickets for five pence each are now paying for the superior lifestyles of a new elite who attend conferences at £400 a day, paid for by the taxpayer.

The bitterness of some displaced volunteers will go down in the folk-lore of volunteering – like that of the volunteer in the north east of England who led an organisation with an annual turnover of £400.000. His twenty four year tenure came to an abrupt end the day he found that locks on the premises had been changed.

Much of the money for the new, brash philanthropy that is emerging is derived from central and local government that determine what will be done and how. More than a third of voluntary sector funding now comes from the state with nearly a quarter of voluntary organisations receiving statutory funds. Volunteers are being disenfranchised and volunteering nationalised.

There is a duty on those who deploy volunteers to help them achieve fulfillment yet, too often, volunteers are kept on the treadmill of repetitive tasks and denied opportunities to develop their talents or take responsibility. No organisation has the right to colonise the social capital of a community without offering fulfillment and empowerment in return. If these charities wish to continue deploying volunteers they will need to re-think their approach by empowering them instead of exploiting them.

The concept of the big society is based on the principle that people and the communities in which they live should be involved in making decisions that affect their lives. It does not envisage a layer of unelected apparatchiks acting on their behalf. When charities begin to talk about community workers and facilitators instead of volunteer managers we shall know volunteering has joined the twenty-first century.  

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book Baby Boomers and the Big Society will be published in 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing

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