Is Big Society all filled up?
By Lesley Anne Gundy
Last weekend, I had a startling discussion with one of my housemates. She had met with a charity that enables people to volunteer to mentor at risk youth. When I asked when she would start volunteering, she said that she was rejected by the charity because she was currently unemployed. At that point, my other housemate chimed in that she was also rejected for a voluntary role during the second round of interviews. I was shocked to say the least. Both are in their late twenties and have masters degrees. In trying to make sense of my intuitive reaction to these stories, I’ve determined that creating this type of exclusive volunteer culture is problematic for several reasons.
Firstly, it seems counterintuitive to turn people away or be highly selective with volunteering opportunities when volunteering and civic participation has been placed at the heart of the Big Society agenda. Now, I’m not going to discuss the politics behind Big Society or get into the backlash in this blog post. All I want to point out is that getting people involved in their communities is a cornerstone of this government’s biggest piece of policy. Having worked on NESTA and the Innovation Unit’s Transforming Early Years project, I have seen first hand how central volunteering has become to not only our localities’ service ideas, but also to community based projects all over the country. Turning away people who have the time and desire to volunteer is counterproductive.
Secondly, there is something to be said about the power of young people in driving and sustaining a movement. Among the many lessons to be learned from the student protests back in November is one on passion and mobilisation. When young people unite around a cause, they have the potential to mobilise very quickly forcing others to take notice. The Obama campaign was quick to pick up on the sheer power of youth involvement, actively campaigning at universities around the United States (including my alma mater). His ability to engage with young people has been cited as a major contributor to his landslide win in 2008. David Cameron has also expressed an understanding of the importance of young people when trying to foster a culture of civic participation. In launching the National Citizen Service, a civic participation programme for 16 year olds, Cameron called today’s youth ‘tomorrow’s social entrepreneurs…and community organisers,’ and that by reaching out to young people, we are ‘sowing the seeds of Big Society.’ If such a policy has any chance of success, involvement from young people is crucial.
Following this argument, my last objection revolves around the potential to engage people in their mid to late 20s. A lot of attention has been paid to students or people in their teens and early 20s, but what about people, no longer in university, who have the time to and desire to volunteer? And I’m not just speaking about people looking to volunteer while searching for a job after graduation. Recently, a couple of my colleagues at the Innovation Unit expressed the desire to volunteer with a local charity during work hours, which was met with support and flexibility from our management team. However, stories like this one do not make a difference if the opportunities for volunteering are not there.
So bringing this rant to a close, young professionals are willing to participate and seek out opportunities to make a difference not only for themselves, but for their communities. Turning volunteering into an exclusive thing is discouraging for those looking to get involved and really does a disservice to everyone in general.