Wally Harbert: The lumpenproletariat of philanthropy

The world is changing, and charities can no longer use the labour of volunteers without giving them any real power

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

Volunteering is apple pie and motherhood rolled into a soft, cuddly toy. Everyone speaks in favour of volunteers. They are universally praised and patronised. The only attacks they suffer occur, not in open discourse but in what is not said.

Susan Ellis, the US champion of volunteering has pointed out that they are commonly noted in policy documents as "assisting" or "supplementing" staff, not as being innovative or working in parallel with them. Like cart horses, they are useful and obedient. They respond to a pat on the back and a kind word but must be firmly directed by staff if they are to achieve anything useful.

Organisations deploying volunteers commonly depict them as shadowy, even marginal figures. It is rare to find a reference to them initiating action or pioneering services. In an age of professionalism, it is as though it is shaming for organisations to admit that volunteers play a crucial role in their affairs.

Unlike any other group in society their views are articulated – or not – by others. Conferences on volunteering are held without them. If you try to organise a meeting with volunteers from a variety of agencies you may find that invitations get no further than chief executives’ desks – even if you are holding it in a prestigious building with a government minister and a free lunch. Volunteers may have no existence beyond that offered by the slave-master who owns them.

Karl Marx would recognise many volunteers as the lumpenproletariat of philanthropy – uncomplaining victims of a system that values their labour but renders them powerless. This is in contrast to Lady Bountiful, who had ready access to people with power and control.

Attitudes towards volunteers and the anxieties they provoke are clearly revealed in documents agreed between trades unions and Volunteering England and Volunteer Development Scotland. They recognise the role of volunteers only as supplementing, complementing and supporting paid staff and ignore their needs and wishes in favour of policies that suit host organisations.

Of course volunteers should not break strikes, but the quid quo pro is missing in these agreements – that volunteers should not be intimidated if they continue with their normal duties during strikes and reserve the right to intervene if vital services are withdrawn from vulnerable people. Simplistic statements that volunteers should not displace staff or carry out work formerly undertaken by staff are unrealistic given the many volunteers who have saved village shops and libraries. 

As a volunteer, I am alarmed that publicly funded bodies, whose values I do not share, negotiate on my behalf with government and others about my rights.

The world is changing. While big charities have been transferring power and control from volunteers and negotiating away their freedoms, small local organisations directed by volunteers and sometimes advised by professional community workers have been gaining ground. This enlarges the pool of potential volunteers and appeals to people seeking greater responsibility than volunteering usually offers. It is the big society in action, empowering volunteers. It is the future.

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, was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing

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