There’s been quite a lot of discussion over the last couple of weeks about the decision to allow BTCV and the Wildlife Trust to run a programme of volunteering for young people in London to regain their free travel passes.
Young people who’ve caused anti-social behaviour, and other offences, have had their passes taken away (which in itself has led to discussions about whether that is the correct punishment). In order to get them back, they need to undertake a period of volunteering with the above charities, as outlined last week.
It’s just another example of the increasing stretching of the term volunteering, particularly by government, to fit a whole host of programmes and projects. I may be a volunteering purist, but I get worried that too many initiatives are muddling volunteering with participation, work experience or community service.
Volunteering obviously comes from the word “voluntary”, which means optional. If you are asked to make a voluntary contribution, you can decide not to give. If you are asked to volunteer some information about yourself, you can choose not to. All this makes a mockery of both the government and opposition proposals for compulsory volunteering.
But volunteering isn’t just about making a choice to do something. My favourite definition of volunteering is “philanthropy of your time”. The great 19th-century philanthropists (and today’s philanthropists) didn’t donate their money for personal gain, but because they believed in the greater good. The libraries, art galleries, hospitals and trusts that enriched public life in this country came about because those people understood the basic principles of social return on investment.
And that’s why some schemes appear to be betraying the concept of volunteering on two related fronts. Firstly, whilst I’d never deny the right of volunteers to use their volunteering to develop skills and gain experience, nor that people should be stopped from volunteering because they want to improve their CV, I get particularly worried when volunteering is promoted as primarily about skills development and increasing job prospects. Hospital radio has always been the way budding DJs got to practice their ‘art’, but certainly at my hospital radio station it was always made clear that you were there to serve the patients; the skills you developed were a by-product. Volunteering is not simply about personal gain.
Which is my second point – volunteering is about doing something that makes a positive difference for someone else (or at least something else, in the case of environmental volunteering). That’s why I get a bit nervous by things like the National Talent Bank that appear to be about promoting volunteering without a single mention that volunteering is a means to an end; not the end in itself. Even v appears to be about counting the number of volunteers placed rather than the effect those volunteers can have.
And if I could have a third point, it would be that volunteering has to involve a sacrifice. I’m all for new ways of volunteering, including current thoughts around micro-volunteering , but I’d get slightly worried if you could count yourself as a volunteer because you had re-tweeted a message on Twitter. That’s akin to counting yourself a philanthropist because you dropped your 1p of spare change into a collecting tin.
Does this matter? Well, I think so. Five or so years ago, before the current rush to push volunteering, lots of people (including young people) engaged in positive volunteering opportunities because they believed in the cause and wanted to make a difference. I certainly don’t want to rubbish the new initiatives that have tried to engage new people into volunteering, but we need to be careful we don’t lose or de-value that level of volunteering, or muddle good citizenship (participation) with the extra effort required for an activity to be counted as volunteering. Because, if a young person who helps run a Brownie night every week is compared equally with a young person who once spent an afternoon in a recording studio making a music track, we’re in danger of losing the real value of volunteering. And that is the effect it has on others.
So what do I think should have been done to give back travel passes to young people? Well, my suggestion would have been the creation of young people’s courts, to introduce the principle of being judged by peers. Part of what the “jury” would look at was what pro-social activities the young person had been involved in. That could include volunteering, but it wouldn’t make the direct connection between volunteering and returning the pass. And the jury should of course focus on the effect that the volunteering had.
Photo courtesy of Actions Speak Louder. Used under licence.