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Why The 'Big Society' Won't Volunteer


Prime Minister David Cameron's vision for a 'Big Society' suffered another setback today when a study by the Hansard Society revealed less people wanted to volunteer than at this time last year. According to the BBC, the people most likely to volunteer were '...parents aged under 45 and from a high-income group'. I say hooray for them, but the middle classes cannot make a Big Society on their own, no matter how hard they try.


In my experience, projects that work with volunteers are often successful where people volunteer in the same communities they live in. That way, people can see the difference it makes, and maybe their friends and families will benefit. According to Dr Ruth Fox, the author of the report, this was another finding - that people '...are not very altruistic' and prefer to volunteer where they feel they could derive some benefit. This contradicts the middle-class notion of volunteering, where those who are already well off 'put something back' by contributing time and effort to helping those who are 'less fortunate'.


You would hope that in practice these two types of volunteer might rub along together well enough and sometimes they do, but there can also be conflict. For a start many people who volunteer do so as a way into paid employment, and don't react well to being told they should be giving their time for free (all very well if your family already has a nice house and a comfortable income).


There are also awkward questions to be asked about what creates the kind of difficulties that volunteering projects are set up to help with. In the case of health and social care projects, the main difficulty is often poverty, or at least having to live without money in a society where other people have plenty of it. Poor people often find it hard to trust the motives of comparatively rich people who work in their communities, either as comparatively well paid social workers, or as volunteers from comfortable backgrounds. As Social Work theorists Roni Strier and Sharon Binyamin put it "The need to overcome the breach of mistrust between services and communities living in poverty is a main concern of the helping professions. According to numerous studies, welfare clients describe social services as bureaucratic, dehumanising and oppressive." Clearly if those services are delivered (in part) by the people who use them, they are less likely to be dehumanising or oppressive. The converse is also true; services that are not bureacratic, dehumainising or oppressive are more likely to attract volunteers from within the communities they serve.


You can make the same point more generally. Policies like the 'Big Society' are more likely to succeed where they are not part of  a package of other policies that sees poor, sick and 'disabled' people pushed further towards the margins of society. The credibility of the scheme has been damaged by the way the government is not only increasing unemployment, but taking money out of benefits like the Independent Living Fund which help those who can't earn money to participate in mainstream society. So sorry Dave, but if you really want a Big Society, you're going to have to join up the dots and rethink some of your other policies.


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