Volunteering and the perils of trying to predict the future…

‘They must be raking it in’, the woman next to me on the Santa Steam Special said last Christmas. Indeed, my daughters we among a screaming hoard of children, as excited to be on a real steam train as they were to be meeting Father Christmas. But how did this success story all begin? As with so much voluntary activity, those volunteers interested in railway preservation in the 1960s weren’t thinking of profits when they tried preserve closed railways lines, save rusty steam engines and pass on suddenly obsolete skills. They were driven by values, not commerce. There are many words people at the time would have used about these volunteers, yet I doubt they would have included ‘creative’, ‘innovators’ and ‘visionaries’. But 50 years later we now know that they were these things, they saw the future and, in their case, the future was the past.

An NCVO event earlier this month looked at volunteering during the downturn and what might change over the next few years. The event marked the launch of a major research project I led looking at volunteering during the downturn. It was strange finally saying goodbye to a project I started in 2012, travelling across England from Cornwall to County Durham and many places in-between. Lots has happened to me personally in that time; moving home, becoming a father again, seeing Volunteering England merge with NCVO. And there have been changes more widely. But just how significant have these been?

The event captured the varied experiences of those involved with volunteers during the downturn. Some speakers talked about what the future might hold for volunteering. And I must have steam trains on the brain because Chris Smyth from the Heritage Railway Association shared his experiences, and I think heritage volunteers are a good example of the dangers of trying to predict the future of volunteering. Yet the panel made a damn good try, and what they saw in the crystal ball for volunteering was pretty compelling…

Changing demographics (and values?) of volunteers

Lynne Berry, Chair of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing, raised a whole number of issues related to the changing demographics of volunteers. With people working longer the cliché of volunteers being retired and aged 65 plus will change.

People should be asking ‘where are all the older volunteers going to come from?’ as well as where the younger ones will come from. There are other issues, such as professional people wanting to use their skills more in their voluntary work. And then there are values; the older generation’s expectations of what should be provided by the state and what constitutes job substitution differs from younger people.

For Lynne, relying on state funding to get things done ‘is so last century’. Will the younger generations facilitate more fluidity between what are currently paid and voluntary roles? Does this matter?

Public spending cuts are in a ‘phoney war’ stage

The implications of the shrinking of the state also preoccupied Simon Parker, Director of the New Local Government Network, who spoke about how the cuts had not fully hit yet, but were about to.

Local authorities will do as much as possible to protect their social care budget. So libraries, culture and parks will now be truly hit. As the local state shrinks, where does this leave volunteering? Simon felt social action could fill the gap, indeed that it can shape services going forwards.

The importance of volunteer management

People stepping in to plug the gap was echoed by Debbie Usiskin, Vice-chair of the Association of Volunteer Managers. But she also warned that some people don’t want to commit to volunteering long-term and that we have to be wary of mandated schemes. Volunteering, should, after all, be voluntary. This environment provides opportunities for volunteer managers, an emerging profession which can be a catalyst for the future.

So, the future looks like…

Well, I am still not sure what the future for volunteering looks like. The chair of the event, Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy at NCVO, asked the audience to raise their hands if they were optimistic about the future of volunteering. The overwhelming response was positive. But for me this was reassuringly predictable and something you didn’t need a crystal ball to predict. Despite everything: the cuts, the change, the challenges; those working with volunteers remain driven, positive and committed to social benefit.

As for volunteers themselves, the real innovators are probably beyond our gaze at the moment. I look forward to finding out what they have been up to…

Join the debate

What is your own view about changes to volunteering over the last few years? And will there be a dramatic change over the next few years?

Leave a comment below or join the twitter discussion: #whatchange2015 @IVRtweets

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Andy Curtis was senior research officer at NCVO's Institute for Volunteering Research.

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