The civil society strategy: What it says about volunteering

This blog post is one of a series on the civil society strategy. For an overview of the strategy, please see our post on What you need to know


I was very excited to open the new civil society strategy and see, up front, a section talking about volunteering and social action. The People section opens by discussing how social action, through charities and otherwise, is a ‘bedrock of our society’.

The government’s vision is for people from varying backgrounds and of all ages to be able to thrive, connect with each other, and give back to their communities – building an integrated society that works for everyone, in which people have a sense of control over their future and that of their community.

While this was a great opener, the following pages had a different feel.

It doesn’t feel strategic

The vision is clear. The fact that it puts people in the driving seat of giving to their communities is also refreshing to see. Quite rightly, this is not about volunteers propping up public services or being ‘used’ to make the world a better place. This is about recognising that people want to contribute to their communities. The objective of ‘enabling a lifetime of contribution’ clearly gets this point across.

However, not all the planned activities fit with this objective. For example, the opening activities talk about tackling loneliness and responding to disasters. The People section feels less like enabling contribution and more a space to put existing government activity related to ‘people’.

It doesn’t feel like a strategy for all people

If you are a young person or need an IT lesson, this strategy is great!

The strategy quite rightly highlights the great focus on the Youth Investment Fund, #iwill fund and investment in the National Citizen Service (NCS). Whether or not you believe NCS is the right way to support youth social action, you can’t help but be pleased to see an emphasis on supporting young people throughout this strategy. There is also some focus on work being undertaken to support older people. This includes the Nesta Connected Communities Innovation Fund and the review being carried out by the Centre for Ageing Better.

These are key groups. But for an all-encompassing strategy, these age groups only represent a small section of society’s potential. This strategy falls short in laying out activities which enable ‘a lifetime of contribution’, focusing instead on the early and later life.

This could have been an easy win for this strategy. Pledges to remove existing barriers would have helped, such as:

  • simplifying safeguarding rules so people aren’t unnecessarily put off from volunteering
  • making it easier for unemployed people looking for work to volunteer
  • supporting opportunity signposting that is built around individuals’ needs
  • pledging to allow time off for volunteering
  • providing a support fund to address barriers to volunteering for people with disabilities
  • strengthening support for quality volunteer management and involvement.

It doesn’t feel new

Well, one thing does. The phrase ‘social sector’ is used to talk about what we know as the voluntary sector – including volunteering and volunteer management.

Beyond that, many (if not all) of the activities listed in the strategy will be familiar:

The new pieces of work are also based on existing activity:

Is this a strategy for volunteering?

We sometimes suffer ‘innovation fatigue’, so some may welcome a chance to bed-in some existing schemes and give them the chance to make an impact. For that reason, dusting off previous programmes could be a great move.

However, for volunteering and social action, this feels a bit like a missed opportunity. Instead of recognising the changing nature of volunteering and civil society support, the People section has focused on activity form the last few years. It is difficult to see how this will enable us all to contribute.

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Shaun is volunteering development manager at NCVO, overseeing strategy for volunteer management and good practice. Previously, he was head of volunteering at Samaritans and is currently a volunteer trustee of Greater London Volunteering.

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