Is Big Society all filled up?

March 24, 2011 at 4:11 pm 7 comments

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.


Entry filed under: Big society, Uncategorized.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  March 24, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    ‘Respect, empower, include,’ to quote Obama.

    I’m definitely with you in spirit, but I feel like I’d need to know more about the specific charities that turned down your housemates and their needs, before passing judgment on them. Volunteers aren’t cost-free, because they generally need paid managers overseeing them, so if a particular charity is full, there’s not a lot they can do. The ‘you can’t volunteer because you’re unemployed’ thing seems really bizarre though. Can you shed any more light on that without breaching anyone’s confidentiality?

  • 2. lgundy  |  March 24, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I’m not really sure why she was rejected because of her employment status. I think it may have had something to do with the fear that she would stop volunteering as soon as she found a job, which is completely valid. Training volunteers does take time and money and turnover can be a real problem. However, I think that’s something that they should have discussed with her first, rather than assuming and just flat out telling her no. I was a bit more concerned about the other story, getting rejected after going through a second round of interviews. It’s like applying for a job, without the money. Last year, I tried to volunteer with a very popular charity. They are up to their eyeballs in volunteers, but still email everyone who has applied to volunteer and the work is on a first come, first serve basis. I think a charity turning away volunteers for that reason is different. It’s really hard to elaborate more without naming names, but I’ve noticed a lot of places that are essentially recruiting for unpaid interns, but call it volunteering and expect candidates to speak multiple languages, have a PhD and a whole host of other qualifications.

    • 3. alecpatton  |  March 25, 2011 at 9:41 am

      That’s a really good point – it’s important that there be a distinction between charitable work and work that you do for money – I’m not sure now what that distinction is, but it’s obvious that volunteering = job – salary is an unreasonable equation.

  • 4. Alan Lockey  |  March 24, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    Going to Nick Hurd’s briefing on that Citizen Service on Wednesday….

  • 5. Raj  |  March 28, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    I suspect the Big Society isn’t filled up. It’s probably dealing with the highest demands and lowest budget cuts in history and is most probably finding it hard to give volunteers the space (quite literally in the office – my own personal experience in Birmingham) and does not have the cash to support their training needs. Plus, charities have to be much smarter about who they recruit – of course, in their view, it would be worth investing in volunteers who are likely to stick around in the long term. When I worked for a well-known national charity outside London – most of the volunteers were retired. I was lucky that the conditions worked for me in that I could work in the evenings after work so my boss was happy. Only, the conditions are different now – the same charity doesn’t operate in the evenings in London which makes it harder for me to volunteer as a full time worker. So, is getting ‘young people’ involved through volunteerism a paradox?

  • 6. lgundy  |  March 29, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Unfortunately, it sounds like it is becoming one. It really is a shame though to constantly hear these calls to get involved and then to realise that the conditions aren’t conducive for it. It really speaks to the larger issues of the Big Society itself.

  • 7. thirup  |  March 29, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    It seems that there is a massive in problem with our definition and understanding of ‘the big society’ as anew market for public services, and as a direct result of this flaws with the infrastructure within this market ie. the relationship between supply and demand.
    Government articulates (or some would say discursively constructs) the idea of the big society, creates the political space to talk about it, releases funding and seeks public backing and engagement. If successfull this should drive people like Lesleys friends towards volunteering, for charities and other community and voluntary sector organisation (CVO’s) who would then find areas for them to engage in delivering a volunteer driven public service. This is where the problems begin. The political construction has blurred the distinctions between who provides what, so now CVO’s has to push themselves in to new grounds, where the public sector would previously operate, but either they don’t have the capacity to do this in terms of knowledge of what they can and can’t do, or they don’t have the financial resources to do (such as hiring people who can train and manage volunteers). At the same time, there has to be a pull for all of this to happen, in terms of public sector bodies clearly defining whats open to the big society and how it will support it, or even better, how it will encourage it by funding this to happen, by commissioning these new provider types. Although the conditions for this pull factor have gotten better, and many commissioners see the value of in working with CVO providers, it is still far from the mainstream. As the news i read last week on how only two of the new GP consortia that are planned to form next year, will be in partnership with CSO’s, mainstreaming the understanding of the value in integrating the ‘big society’ in to our public service delivery and creating a place for Lesley friends to might still be quite far away.


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