Volunteering: future concerns – February 2017

I have been involved with voluntary organisations of various kinds for a long time. I have been tempted to research and write a detailed politics of voluntary organisations, and the policy of reliance on voluntarism, but here wish only to raise some concerns about their future and its implications. My evidence is anecdotal and limited, but does seem to share some common ground with much more rigorous studies. So, here are some scattered thoughts and concerns about the future. These could be seen as a contribution, rough and draft, to a detailed politics of voluntarism.

It may be best if I begin with a strong thesis, albeit one that may require multiple qualifications. Quite simply, in Britain at least, we may be witnessing the slow passing of a generation committed to, and resourced for, voluntary involvement; and, if so, this may well threaten a future in which much that is generally valued will depends upon commitments and support that may not be forthcoming when younger generations come to the fore. The “big society” notion, which also seemed contradictory, may have faded, but we have a government that expects that voluntary management and labour can replace services and facilities that were previously publicly financed and based on paid employees. I doubt that this can be successful.

I can present some anecdotal evidence, almost at random. Recently I visited a small museum in Shropshire that has had to cut its opening hours, not because of lack of funds, but because of a shortage of volunteers simply to open up and lock up the facility. In the same town, a large leisure centre, that serves a wide surrounding area, is being transferred from local council ownership and management to a trust. The Trust is seeking local volunteers to act as trustees, and also attempting to raise substantial funds; it is seeking £50,000, which sounds a very limited sum considering the substantial subsidies usualy needed for such facilities. Similar trusts have not always fared well; the trust that was managing some of Denbighshire’s major leisure facilities found itself insolvent in 2014. The prospect must be that such transfers may result in the eventual loss of the facility.

When I was about 28, I joined an historical society, an enthusiast body that was, and is, entirely run by volunteers. I was then one of the youngest members, in a society whose early members had included teenagers. Over 30 years later, I am still one of the youngest members, and when I left the governing Council of that Society (ironically, because I was accused of dereliction of duty), I was the Council’s youngest member. I have been a member of another society for much the same period, involved in museum support; my involvement has been decidedly limited compared to volunteers who have run that Society for 40 years. When I was in my 30s, many active members were in their 40s and 50s; now, most active members are between their late 60s and their 80s. In the case of both Societies, there is simply no cohort of younger members, no sign of any rising “successor generation”, and it is only the heroic commitment of substantial numbers of (now) retired people that keep both organisations as successful and influential as they are. Add 20 years to the present ages of volunteers, and those that are still with us will, inevitably, have severely reduced capacity. Both organisations face, therefore, the possibility that they may have to curtail or modify activities, or even cease to exist.

While younger people may join, of course, it seems unlikely that they will do so in sufficient numbers to maintain these organisations. What would happen if they ceased to exist? Without the historical society, a significant journal would be lost, some research would be discouraged, and a lot of meetings and conferences, many of educational and social value, would no longer take place. For the other society, a major support to one of Britain’s leading museums would disappear, with much voluntary labour, management and financial contributions ending. Both these organisations are serving broad purposes, but on the voluntary principle, operate only because their members and supporters wish them to exist and are prepared to work for them. If future generations – say, those born after 1967 – do not have this commitment in sufficient numbers, then, by one viewpoint, so be it.

More worrying, in many ways, is where other voluntary bodies service needs that involve the relief of personal deprivation. If these face the combination of rising needs (as the welfare state recedes), increasing reliance upon voluntary support, and a (seemingly) generational and perhaps permanent loss of voluntary labour, management and finance, the results could be disastrous for many people already in serious lack.

I am clearly not the only person to voice concerns about this. Recent reports have suggested that charities that need to use volunteers need to rethink what they can offer, including benefits to present and possible volunteers, and re-shaping the nature of voluntary work. For some younger people, still very much in paid work, volunteering may be something that they envisage post-retirement, and indeed some providers may need to stress opportunities to the near-retired. Perhaps a new generation of commitment will emerge.

I have a more chilling thought, however. I wonder seriously if a certain type of voluntary commitment has begun to wane with the ageing and passing of my own and my generation of my parents’ age. Only anecdotal evidence again, but for most of their adult lives my mother and father were members of voluntary organisations. They joined parallel service organisations in 1949, and, as those were subject to age limits, to successor organisations. I grew up with meetings, committees, jumble sales, events and commitments. Mum only recently gave up involvement due to ill-health, over 60 years later, and Dad would no doubt have carried on up to his 90s had he had not died in his mid-60s. It did not occur to me, when I joined the organisations mentioned above, that my commitment would not also be lifelong. I should record that the service organisations to which my parents (but not I) were so committed are ageing and much reduced in numbers, and those featuring members under 40 have almost disappeared.

The reasons for this are many. Changes in labour market conditions, limiting the possibilities of a job for life, which “careers” in voluntary activity could parallel, are one factor, while the changing nature of middle-class occupations and residence has decoupled many from localities in which they might have been the proverbial “pillars of the community”. Interests have diverged – for waterways, the seeming “golden age” of volunteering to help restorations has receded, although there is a significant input into maintenance and amenity work.

I have long tired of the intergenerational accusations and counter-accusations, promoted by the media (for political ends), so that “baby boomers” are accused of “stealing their children’s future”. Similarly tedious and inaccurate are the occasional counter-accusation that it was/is the baby boomers” who were willing to put in efforts that younger generations, who “had it easy”, cannot be bothered to make. This is all generalised and pernicious rubbish that aims to divide and divert attention from real developments and deficiencies. There are differences in experience between generations as well as within generations; the latter being very marked, in that there are many middle-class people from the baby boomer generations who have never volunteered and have no intention of doing so. And, whatever the reasons, there seem to be less people in readiness to replace the present high-involvement generations. My feeling is that, rather than condemn this fact, it is best to accept that it is so and begin to plan round it. That might mean less, rather than greater, reliance upon voluntary effort.

I am myself a volunteer, with some of the benefits that accrue – in retirement, a small group of people who recognise my commitment (and whose commitment I, in turn, recognise) and a sense that I am doing something worthwhile. I would be very loath to discourage anyone from voluntary activity – indeed, many could benefit from further involvement. What concerns me, more and more, is the doctrine (and a decidedly doctrinaire one at that) that socially important activities can be, and should be, entrusted to voluntary bodies and volunteers. It does seem that many other volunteers share my view, that societies should plan to meet whatever needs develop, and commit public resources to secure these. Voluntary activity should be genuinely that – to service concerns that, if people cannot commit voluntary labour, finance or management, those concerns will not be met.

I think that such concerns may need to be those generally seen as minor, not major matters that should be met by public commitment. I doubt that current governments will follow this view, but the meeting of important needs should not depend on voluntary effort, and that might mean the diversion of current and future effort towards what is, perhaps, trivial enough to be left to the voluntary. As it transpires, this might make it less necessary for younger generations to volunteer, but possible for future voluntary activity to meet their resources and interests.

Much more I could write on this, but I am not qualified to write a treatise!se

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