30 years of volunteering

Volunteering is volunteering is volunteering

Volunteering is as old as society itself. Cicero, writing in On Moral Obligations in 44 BC, argued that ‘whatever kindness can be done without personal loss should be done, even for a stranger’. So looking back over 30 Years of Volunteers’ Week we should perhaps not be expecting monumental change. And it is true, that in certain key respects volunteering has altered little over the past quarter of a century. Participation rates, for example, have remained remarkably constant, with the most recent survey of 2012-13 reporting a figure of 44% of the adult population engaged in formal volunteering in the last 12 months, exactly the same as that reported in the first national volunteering survey of 1981. There have been minor fluctuations over the course of this period, but consistency is the watchword, giving rise to the notion of a civic core within the UK – a committed band of people doing most of the volunteering (and giving). The types of activity volunteers are engaged in has also not shifted very much, with fundraising and involvement in sport, arts and recreation still topping the list of surveys today as they did in the 1980s.

All change

But in other respects the landscape of volunteering has shifted markedly. For one thing volunteers feel much better supported today than they used to. The 1997 National Survey of Volunteering reported that 71% of volunteers felt that their work could be better organised. Ten years later, the Helping Out survey showed the figure had fallen to 31%, a tribute to the work of countless agencies and individuals who have worked so hard to improve volunteer management and support. Volunteering also has a higher profile than ever before, as governments have (belatedly) woken up to the huge societal benefits that it brings.

It’s not that volunteering wasn’t being thought about in the early eighties. In fact in 1982, following the inner city riots in Liverpool and Brixton, the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher launched the Opportunities for Volunteering programme which was to run for the next 30 years, only closing in 2012. But it is the scale and ambition which shifted, with successive UK governments at the end of this period – Labour with the Third Way, The current coalition with the Big Society – making voluntary action (whatever the rights and wrongs of their approaches) key planks of their political programmes, in ways that would have been unthinkable 30 years previously. Internationally too, the period witnessed a massive expansion of interest in volunteering with the UN designating an International Year of Volunteers in 2001, and the European Union following suit in 2011. Again, it is unthinkable that these could have happened in the early 1980s.

The rise of peer-to-peer

There are three other (interlinked) areas of change worth noting. First, the extent to which volunteering, like all other aspects of human endeavour, has been changed by the digital revolution. On-line databases, such as Do-it, were un-heard of in the early 1980s, much less the now ubiquitous social media platforms, which have facilitated an explosion of peer-to-peer engagement. This has been accompanied (or perhaps fuelled) by a shift in volunteer motivations and expectations – one could even call it a shift in power relations between volunteers and organisations – with volunteers less prepared to put up with shoddy practice and more demanding of flexibility and the right to shape and own their volunteering experience. Third, the period has been characterised by an increasing belief from government (again fuelled in part by the rise of peer-to-peer social action, facilitated by new technology) that volunteering just happens and doesn’t require the support from intermediaries – from volunteer centres and volunteer-involving organisations to flourish. And indeed, increasingly, the view is held (erroneously in my view) that the role of government in all of this is to get out of the way and ‘allow a thousand flowers to bloom’.

What next?

One thing is certain: volunteering will continue to flourish whatever is thrown at it, and whatever governments decide to do or not do. As Cicero implied (two millennia before Watson and Crick!) the urge to help is hard-wired into our DNA and people will find ever new and creative ways of putting that desire into action. Online and micro-volunteering will grow further, but the human longing for personal interaction will ensure that face-to-face volunteering will continue to expand to meet the seemingly ever-increasing need in our communities. ‘Traditional’ forms of volunteering will remain hugely important and will develop in new and exciting ways. Volunteers will become more demanding (in the best sense of the word) and organisations will up their game in response. Some volunteering will just happen, but the majority will benefit from support and guidance from intermediaries. The challenge, as NCVO has argued in its new five year plan, will be to blend the advantages of offline and online volunteering to create a stronger more dynamic movement for the future; and to secure the investment to make this happen.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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