Volunteering: the making of communities

By September 14, 2009Uncategorized

As someone who volunteers with a number of different organisations I felt compelled to write something on the subject of volunteering and the positive results it has on the individual and his/her place in society.

Much research has been done to understand what motivates people to volunteer, but do these motives change over the course of the volunteering experience; what does it take for someone to continue volunteering and can these reasons be captured and articulated when creating new volunteering opportunities: in short can we formally structure volunteering activities to ensure a sense of community is felt by those participating in them? My initial thoughts on this start with a conference that I had been invited to speak at last month:

“Does volunteering include looking after my children?” The speedy response from the back of the seminar room took me slightly aback. My presentation was on the subject of ‘Volunteering: the making of communities’ and I had opened with a question, ‘what was the single most popular volunteering activity in the UK?’ It was a mild concern to me that in a room of social policy professionals, one generally considered that an activity involving the generic nurture, parental love and legal duty of care associated with looking after his children could be recognised as volunteering.

Needless to say I wasn’t quite sure how to respond; I could see the man’s logic, there were similarities: both activities – child care and volunteering – involved self sacrifice, community benefit and evening commitments, but some how this father figure was slightly off the mark.

Volunteering involves an altruistic desire to improve human quality of life by choice not necessity; indeed the context, as well as the motivation, of the volunteering activity can influence the creditability of the action. Volunteers are not just unpaid labourers, but have a purpose to their activities and responsibilities. They can also opt to walk away at any time, making their staying power even more valuable.

The answer I had down for the most popular ‘formal’ volunteering activity was donating blood; over 1.3 million people in this country, that’s 5% of the eligibly population donated their time to donate their blood to save a life. A simple message: save a life in your community, a simple action: lie on your back for 20 minutes and a simple reward: cup of tea and a packet of crisps. This was a volunteering activity that not only made communities, it kept them alive and kicking.

My presentation was on how these same principles could be adopted in local community projects to develop responsibility through structured and flexible volunteering roles that are relied upon by others in the community. Our research has shown that if a successful council-run volunteering project can create a sense of community in those people who participant in the activity then this sense of community was infectious; with volunteers feeling a place and purpose in their wider community. Not only this, but an hour given to volunteer for one’s community is a more valuable one than someone doing it for alternative ends.

This is highlighted through the work Richard Titmuss did in the 1970s where he compared the UK voluntary blood donations with its counterpart in the America, where blood donations were run as an enterprising activity. In America donors were paid for their blood, but Titmuss discovered that the blood they gave had more problems with it; the quality was not as good when compared with the British donated blood. Titmuss coined the phrase ‘gift relationship’ and comparisons can still be drawn with how a community resident and the local authority interact with each other.

Maybe if my vocal father friend had followed through the logic of my presentation he might consider fostering as his gift to the community. A father does not volunteer to look after his children as there is a legal requirement to do so. However a neighbour may babysit them on occasion and not be paid, which could be classed as volunteering – if only defined as informal. Formal volunteering moves past these ‘favours’ to create a role for a member of the community in a public setting. As one speaker remarked at the conference: we ‘need to formalise informal volunteering’, and in doing so brought into question the very ontology of ‘informal volunteering’.

Whichever way community volunteering goes (formal public sector ‘gifts’ vs informal one-off ‘favours’) there is one near certainty – you can normally encourage anyone to contribute their time to an activity with a promise of a cup of tea and a possible packet of crisps.

Alex Bone

0144 282 3530

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