Volunteering for the Shared Society

When Theresa May took the lectern at the Charity Commission to announce her vision of a Shared Society, many in the sector were quick to take the credit. They felt the policy reminded them of Cameron’s Big Society, with its strong emphasis on the ability of the Third Sector to provide services and build cohesion. Like the Shared Society, the Big Society was supposed to be ‘people powered’ rather than ‘state run’, and then as now, it found many enthusiasts in the voluntary sector, who hoped for a new spike in volunteering and [inevitably in vain] more funding to help them step into the breach where the state had stepped out.

Many of those ideas have been reheated in the microwave oven of ‘Anything But Brexit’ policymaking to become Theresa May’s Shared Society. The May narrative is one which seats very real social issues in the UK in a narrative about how we the people are not really working hard enough, not really doing as much as we could, and after all who do we really have to blame for that if not ourselves. Sir Stewart Etherington, CEO of NCVO applauded the speech’s balance between crediting charities for their work and supporting schemes like the National Citizen Service which encourage volunteer work, saying “volunteering is the clearest expression of the will of millions of people to take an active role in society”. Except of course, that there is an interplay with politics that the third sector is often keen to play down, not wanting to endanger their funding with controversy, and all of those volunteers by definition have some sense of a need that should be filled. That is at its heart a political issue, and it’s not one that can be answered by vague praise.

In some ways, May’s prospective vision of a Shared Society belies the existence of the millions of people who already take part in voluntary activity up and down the United Kingdom. According to the most recent data from the Cabinet Office, approximately 42% of adults in the UK volunteer at least once a year, 27% at least once a month – that’s more than one in four. So when you sit in a four seater on your packed commuter train that’s standing still for no reason halfway between two stations, at least one of those people sitting with you has volunteered this month, and will again next month, and the month after. There are millions of people in the UK who put hours of unpaid time and effort into the well being of others – not just in hours of volunteering but also serving on boards of trustees, in hours of extra preparation they put into their jobs, in risks they take to bring social projects off the drawing board and into reality. Many of them are brilliant, inspiring people, but many are also stretched well beyond what they can deliver and what they are qualified for, and those deficiencies in governance are a deep and abiding problem in many organisations. There is a real need for training and regulation, and that takes cash.

While we admire Theresa May’s pledge to the voluntary sector, volunteers cannot simply be expected to step up where the state has stepped out, and volunteering cannot simply be valorised, by those in government, or those in the sector, as a solution to a crisis of state funding.