Mary Dejevsky: How to break the spell of voluntary work

The Government fails to 'get' the spirit in which the vast majority of people volunteer
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As thousands of pre-university idealists contemplate a "gap year" of doing good in distant parts, the usefulness of their efforts has been questioned by the head of perhaps the best known of all British volunteer groups. The director of Voluntary Service Overseas, Judith Brodie, has warned that the prevailing attitude towards gap years risks becoming "outdated and colonial" because it focuses on the experience of the volunteers, rather than on the benefit to the recipient communities.

I dare say that the increasing number of students, and others, prepared to pay for the privilege of doing voluntary work abroad, rather as others might pay for a conventional package holiday, brings in intermediaries of a similar stripe. Volunteering abroad has become fashionable and provides an adornment to one's CV.

If half a cloud is passing over the world of volunteering abroad, however, at least it has nothing to do with the Government and is a by-product of success. The same, alas, cannot be said of what is happening in the voluntary sector at home. Volunteering in Britain has a long and admirable history. Compared with the dubious efficacy of some groups abroad, this so-called "third sector" at home has made itself not only useful, but in many respects indispensable.

Given the thoroughly positive reputation of home-grown volunteering and its very British reluctance to sing its own praises, it was probably always a matter of time before the Government alighted on it as an under-used resource. The result was New Labour's own twist on the Kennedy exhortation: Ask not what your government can do for you, but what you can do for your government.

Many in the proudly non-political mainstream of the voluntary sector now see a determined effort to harness their work more closely to the Government's objectives. Some projects, for instance, especially in the social and health spheres, may plug gaps that have opened up in programmes that were once routinely funded by taxpayers.

In trying to exploit the "third sector" in this way, however, the Government appears to be making some false, and indeed damaging, assumptions. The first is that the public has no particular view about which services should be the responsibility of government and which are appropriately provided by volunteers.

The second is that a prime motivation of many volunteers is to enhance their CV with a view to obtaining a salaried position. Ministers extrapolate from this that volunteering offers an opportunity for those without work to "reconnect" themselves with the labour market. According to this thinking, it has - or should - become a bridge to "real" work, rather as unpaid "work experience" has become almost essential for those trying to find a first job.

Fortunately, before the long-term unemployed - not to speak of carers, single mothers and the disabled - are dispatched for a bracing spell of volunteering to tone up their "work skills", some common sense has prevailed. A report just published* finds that the Government's assumptions about why people undertake voluntary work are largely wrong.

They are particularly wrong, the report finds, about the notion of voluntary work as a career move. Most volunteers, it says, take on unpaid work as a way of making a positive contribution, whether to a cause they have a personal interest in or to an activity where they feel they could make a difference. For many it is also a chance to fill spare time in a useful way, to meet people and to have a diversion that takes them outside the four walls of home. Only a very few saw any "career" component in what they were doing.

My husband's experience bears out and supplements these findings. He has Parkinson's disease and contributes to a number of projects as a volunteer. Chiefly it is a way of making some contribution in return for the state benefits and NHS treatment he receives. He regards it as a way of using his experience to help others in a similar situation and pooling resources with other people to benefit many more. It can be hard work, but is often interesting and specialised. The social contact and getting out of the house are benefits as well.

It would assist the family bank balance, of course, if this sort of work were paid. But volunteers bring a particular personal commitment to the task in hand. Any suspicion that volunteers might be motivated by career considerations would change their relationship with those who receive the service. Any career expectation on the part of the volunteer is also likely to be unrealistic. Why should an organisation "promote" someone from unpaid to paid work? They will be more inclined to recruit paid employees from outside the pool of volunteers.

The difficulty comes when the state or charity farms out a programme to a private or not- for-profit company, which has based its calculations on continuing to recruit volunteers. Any hint of commerce in the form of costing or charges for the service, and the spell of the volunteer world is broken.

This is one consequence of the proliferation of agencies and private companies in areas that most people regard as the state sector that the Government appears not to understand. Volunteering does not exist comfortably alongside an obvious balance sheet.

The recent ludicrous episode of the lunch allowance illustrates how profoundly the Government fails to "get" the spirit in which the vast majority of people volunteer. Guidelines issued earlier in the summer by the Department of Work and Pensions stipulated that people receiving benefits risked having their benefits docked for lunches they received, or claimed, while doing voluntary work. The reason given was that state benefits are deemed to cover meals.

The rule prompted fury and scorn: were civil servants so short of serious benefit fraudsters that they had to resort to this? Was there a scale somewhere that classified the lunch as thrifty, regular or luxury, and made a deduction accordingly? The rule was rescinded last week.

But it left a sour taste, and a question. Does the Government understand that the overwhelming majority of volunteers work for nothing for truly altruistic reasons - not because they might receive a free lunch or because they hope to reach another rung on a career ladder. In projecting primarily selfish expectations on to those who volunteer, the Government risks killing whole swathes of this "third" sector - and not with kindness either.

Irene Hardill, 'Doing One's Duty: Why people volunteer in a deprived community' (Economic and Social Research Council)