Putting the Voluntary back into the Voluntary Sector

We are, of course, paying particular attention to what senior members and shapers of the Conservative Party are saying about their approach to social issues. In a speech last year to Third Sector magazine’s ‘Britain’s Most Admired Charities’ Awards, Iain Duncan Smith contended that:

Volunteers animated by ‘fire in their bellies’ are of diminishing relevance in many of our large charities today. As these organisations grow they usually become increasingly professionalized. Yet individual charities – and Big Charity as a whole – continue to define themselves as ‘voluntary’ even though voluntarism is often peripheral to them.’

I have not been able to find any research evidence about this. Do send me some if you have any? But I think he’s right, both about the diminished input of volunteering time in proportion to paid staff input and in the diminished spirit of voluntarism in the sector.

Voluntarism was the fire in the belly behind the Suffragette Movement and the growth of the Trade Unions. It was the spirit that inspired most charities, to begin with: a shared passion to deal with the individual suffering and social problems created by market and state failure. In his speech, IDS goes on to say:

‘For me, voluntarism is important for two reasons. Firstly many vulnerable people receive great love and care from volunteers. Secondly – and just as importantly – volunteering makes us better people. Volunteering is the glue that binds communities together as sacrificial love unites families. Its power in shaping character heals us as we help others. Without it, the work of charities can be as cold and contractual as that of state agencies. Is that effectively what many charities are becoming?’

Agreeing with his observations does not mean that I agree with the conclusions. The title of his speech was, ‘Breaking the Big-State-Big-Charity Duopoly.’ If the contention is that Big Charity has lost the spirit of voluntarism and confined their volunteers to sitting in Boardrooms and working in charity shops I would look for solutions that challenge them to recognise this and to use their considerable assets for better community engagement. Not that Cyrenians is a Big Charity, but it has been massively rewarding for us in recent times to help Greyfriars Community Project to establish its woodwork social enterprise and, currently, to use our leadership skills in establishing the Royal Edinburgh Community Gardens.

Although Cyrenians is renowned in for engaging volunteers we are giving fresh prominence to voluntarism in our up-dated Corporate Strategy. In 2008/09 volunteer hours were 50% of employed staff hours. We’re getting the team revved up, not just to take on more volunteers but also to think more imaginatively about the roles they can play in helping us keep alight the fire in our corporate belly.


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