Volunteering summer reading

The story goes that Margaret Thatcher once took on her summer holiday a two thousand word feasibility study on the Channel Tunnel. True or not, it is a nice anecdote and got me thinking about recent volunteering-related reports which you might not have got around to looking at and which might deserve at least a cursory glance over the summer break.

I would not suggest, dear readers, such a heavyweight tome for your R&R this year. Indeed if pressed, I would point you, as the perfect beach read, to the latest in the brilliant Charlie Resnick series from the British Crime Writer, John Harvey, a writer who does for Nottingham what Ian Rankin did for Edinburgh in the Rebus series.

But if you are interested in perusing some of the latest writing on volunteering then here are four recent reports which might grab your attention. They are offered (which is unusual for me) without comment or endorsement but as interesting and varied contributions to debate.

A Better Offer: The Future of volunteering in an ageing society

First off is the latest report from the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing, based on conversations with volunteers and volunteer managers, and a survey of 12 large charities. Building on the earlier report Age of Opportunity, it sets out two very different scenarios for the future of volunteering: one a positive vision where increasing numbers of older people are volunteering as part of a ‘portfolio career’ alongside paid work and leisure activities; the other a doomsday scenario of falling numbers and declining interest in volunteering as people are forced to delay their retirement on economic grounds, and where any free time is taken up with caring responsibilities for elderly relatives or grandchildren.

The paper explores a range of ways in which organisations and policy makers can help usher in the positive future, from micro-volunteering, through incentives, to a full-scale image makeover.

Turbo charging volunteering: co-production and public service reform by David Boyle

Second, from the prolific and erudite David Boyle, we have a report which looks at the role a new turbo-charged volunteering movement could play in the co-production and delivery of public services. Boyle is the high-priest of co-production and argues passionately and persuasively for a future in which users don’t simply consume services, but have an active role in their design and implementation. He acknowledges that the concept is not new, tracing it back at least as far as Beveridge, but suggests that with one or two notable exceptions, such as timebanks and citizen justice panels, it is still yet to take off.

His blueprint for change includes investing in local infrastructure and support networks, changing the focus of public sector commissioners to adopt a more asset-based approach, and introducing local management of budgets. The rewards he argues are immense, citing research which suggests that such an approach could cut NHS costs by at least 7% (£4.4bn) a year.

His ambition – ‘to reinvent volunteering through public services so that it becomes classless, absolutely ubiquitous, far easier, cross-departmental, and part of the fundamental purpose of those services’ – is easy to admire, though perhaps harder to implement.

The New Barn Raising by German Marshall Fund

Report number three explores somewhat similar territory, but this time from a US perspective. In The New Barn-Raising Gareth Potts, uses the attractive metaphor of ‘Barn Raising’, perhaps most famously represented in the Hollywood Film, Witness, to call for a new approach to the delivery of public services such as parks, museums, libraries and leisure centres. As with Boyle he argues for an asset-based approach, with volunteers centre stage, which builds on what individuals and communities have to offer, not on what is missing, and draws a useful distinction between supplanting volunteering and supplementing volunteering. His recipe for success also shares much in common with Boyle, not least the importance of investing in local support structures.

Stronger Neighbourhoods, Neighbourhood Watch with Comparethemarket.com

The final ‘recommendation’ is somewhat different. It comes from a rather unlikely alliance between Neighbourhood Watch and Comparethemarket.com and is based on a survey and follow up social experiment on a single street in Manchester in July 2014. The Say Hello Social Experiment involved a handful of residents who were asked to interact with their neighbours in a variety of different and subtle ways, such as saying hello in the morning on the way out of the house, and to keep a diary of the impact this change in behaviour had on others.

The results were striking. Despite reporting a few ‘strange looks’ to start with the participants noted at the end of the month-long experiment a marked impact on the sense of community in the street. In an accompanying report the researchers come up with ten steps to build stronger communities and, surprise surprise, volunteering features strongly in the list, from offering help to neighbours with such practical tasks as putting the bins out or cutting the lawn, to keeping the neighbourhood tidy, and to popping round to check up on elderly neighbours.

So there you go…

Four interesting and varied reports, just in case you are at a loose end over the holiday period.

Although, honestly, if I was you, I would reach for the Resnick first.


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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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