The government has announced that every company employing more than 250
people and every public sector organisation should give staff three days off each year to volunteer.
Volunteering is usually seen as giving time and effort for no reward. The government’s definition is more flexible, embracing people who are paid their normal hourly rate for doing something that otherwise, if performed at all, would be done for nothing. The cost of this largesse will be met by employers. It is no surprise that some of them are unhappy about it.
When "volunteers" are paid and employers are compelled to meet the cost, the voluntary principle has been jettisoned, so, whatever this is, it is not volunteering. It might pump new life into some projects, but it could devalue the currency of volunteering.
I like the thought of my bank manager trying his skills at a food bank, especially if he recognises that this will make him a better person. But I do not want to find myself in a longer queue at the supermarket because staff are working in a charity shop. Nor do I want my hip operation delayed to enable the operating team to run a mobile library in the wards. Despite the lobbying act, there has clearly been some superb, if misguided, lobbying. For many, time away from work is preferable to time away from the television screen, so the scheme could be popular.
This is not the first government to cuddle up to volunteers. The Good Neighbour Scheme of the1970s, John Major’s Make a Difference Project, the Experience Corps under Tony Blair and the big society were all launched in the mistaken belief that, to increase the supply of volunteers, all that was needed was a government fanfare and some initial funding. As with attempts to capture Olympic volunteers for the long term, the impact has always been disappointing.
Soviet governments also wanted a share of the good vibes surrounding volunteering but were not willing to allow the freedom of association that this required. Volunteering died after the revolution and any attempt to resuscitate it led to a visit from the political police. In its place, obligatory activities were labelled as voluntary. A day of unpaid work was known a "subbotnik", derived from the Russian word for Saturday. Lenin’s subbotnik celebrated his birthday each year. Not surprisingly, volunteering was widely seen as a shabby political trick.
The government’s volunteering scheme will create two classes of volunteer – the paid and the unpaid. The new hybrid volunteers will need a name to distinguish them from the genuine article. I suggest chetvergs – chetties for short – after the Russian word for Thursday. The test of its success will be the number of chetties that turn into real volunteers.
Wally Harbert’s book on older volunteering, Baby Boomers and the Big Society, was published in 2012