The Changing Face of Volunteering

Volunteering is at the heart of much youth work. Volunteering has become a catch-phrase in David Cameron’s tragic-comedy,  the Big Society. Indeed, so much so, that volunteers are greatly in demand. Thus

Work Programme company tried to recruit volunteers to train clients

The Third Sector magazine reports that:

A4e, one of the prime providers of the Department for Work and Pensions’ Work Programme, asked Volunteer Centre Oxfordshire in an email if it could provide volunteers to help with CV workshops for unemployed people on the programme. A4e did not specify in the message how long the work would last but did require the volunteers to get Criminal Records Bureau checks.

The email, sent by Howard Goldby on behalf of Hannah Aubrey at A4e Oxford, said: “What we are hoping for is some volunteers to help the trainer on the workshops, as some of our customers need more one-to-one support to complete their CVs. The ideal volunteer would possess very good IT skills, a lot of patience, and be able to work alongside the trainer so that the customer will have a completed CV.”

The centre did not refer any volunteers to A4e. Lindsay Watts, manager of the Volunteer Centre Oxfordshire, said Work Programme providers referring clients to volunteer centres without paying the centres “gives people the wrong impression of volunteering. It is taking advantage of people who do not know any different. They might not even know it is a profit-making company.”


Justin Wylie in an eloquent and personal  critique of the present situation asks, “what happened to the old-fashioned idea of a volunteer having some dignity and being able to say what they were offering, to some extent at least, on their own terms?”

In his piece, On volunteering in the nanny society, he begins:

I’m just in the process of offering myself to do some voluntary work for a charity which works with young homeless people in B. I contacted them with an offer to run a specific project. They’ve sent me the volunteer application form. Of course the process must be controlled… Anyway; I was prepared for that. So; no problem really; I can still explain what my offer is. But, filling in the form I begin to feel well, (and I hate to use the word), my ‘self-esteem’ drop. Why?

The form is like an application form for employment. It asks for my NI number (social security number). It asks for my employment history, details of my last employment including salary, work history and references. In fact a quick check of the web site shows that it is the employment application from with the word ‘job’ crossed out and replaced with the word ‘volunteer’. How lazy perhaps. But it also is indicative of a trend in recent times to treat volunteers as unpaid staff. I’d see this as part of the wider trend over the last 10 years characterised by ‘child protection/safeguarding’, an obsession with ‘bullying’ and victims, increasing degrees of social control, the abandonment of the Labour struggle by New Labour etc. In this new, controlled, world where everything is managed by behaviour experts and individual autonomy and instinct is banned, volunteers are treated as unpaid employees. This is what makes me feel ‘low self-esteem’. A volunteer voluntarily brings something of themselves to the situation and not surprisingly they want that respected; they want to offer what they want to offer. But unpaid work is something different. It’s… unpaid work. What happened to the old-fashioned idea of a volunteer having some dignity and being able to say what they were offering, to some extent at least, on their own terms?

This trend is not confined to this particular charity; it is the new way of treating volunteers. There are a number of possible different aspects to this:

  • It is part of the relentless need of an economy which depends on ‘growth’ to stimulate economic rather than social activities. Would-be volunteers are being channelled into employment. Volunteering is seen exclusively as a step towards employment.
  • On the same note it is acceptable to expect volunteers to generate economic value. A look through a major online volunteering web site shows that many charities and organisations are now advertising volunteer posts which would never have been done by volunteers before; they are simply menial jobs (secretaries, clerical jobs etc) being filled by people who don’t get paid. Since many charities are simply arms of government, deriving almost all their income from government, this is essentially the government looking to get things done for free.
  • At the same time; the informal relations loosely mediated by a charity between volunteer and the clients of that organisation are eliminated. The attack on informal relations which we have seen in recent years, is typified by phenomena such as the reduction in the autonomy of teachers and the imposition of an outcomes agenda on youth work. In place of spontaneous, authentic, relations are relations where each party acts according to a script produced in advance by someone in power who is not present at the actual transaction but to whom it must be reported afterwards.

In the new scripted world the ‘victim of bullying’ is now ‘counselled’ by a volunteer who has definitely been vetted for ‘child protection’ purposes and has been on the course on how to respond correctly to the victim… The teacher can no longer teach what he is interested in but every detail is planned in advance by a committee who, of course, has the interests of the children at heart. (The unspoken implication is that we cannot trust individual teachers to have the interests of their students at heart and/or the skills to act effectively). Lest anything unscripted has taken place the teacher must write up a ‘log’ after each session to show that the correct learning outcomes have been met. In short – the old style of volunteering which trusted people to get on with it, after an initial check to see if they were suitable, has given way to a regime of automatons following the scripts written elsewhere by behaviour experts with outcomes favourable to power in mind.

Of course, it is easy simply to lament these changes. But we should probe a little deeper. Certainly the trend towards micro-management of teachers, youth workers, et al can be seen as serving a political purpose. It breaks down informal relations which are a possible threat to an insecure political class no longer sure how much of the population’s assent it really commands, since it no longer has any roots in civil society (Oborne 2007). At the same time that political class is unified in its support for corporate business, publicly traded businesses, and the logic of the stock exchange. Labour, for its part, replaced political analyses with ones based on pop psychology, economic programmes with parenting classes. If we aren’t going to free the workers, we’d better, like China, make sure we control them. Or, in other words, having given up its foot-hold in the working class based on having an economic programme which favoured their interests New Labour sought a new way of gaining a foot-hold and it was through an agenda based around ‘support for dysfunctional families’ and ‘tackling anti-social behaviour’ and so on; the focus shifted from the economic domain to the psychological. Labour was no longer a threat to corporate interests and could, just about, convince itself that this still represented a ‘progressive’ agenda.

The New Labour behaviour experts would probably have seen this programme of issuing teachers, youth workers and volunteers with scripts for how to act in each and every situation as being part of a ‘progressive agenda’. It meant (in theory though of course not in practice as some well-illustrated failures indicate) that every ‘child’ was receiving the same care. And, it made employment opportunities in these areas more inclusive as no longer achievements and talent but ability to follow a script became the criteria for employment, which seemingly creates a level playng field giving everyone an equal opportunity. But it is based on a kind of phantasy, which boils down to thinking of people as if they are programmable machines, that you can just say to them ‘leave your own stuff at the door and act according to this script’ and expect to get good results, because the script has been approved as safe and meeting the 5 ECM aims by a committee of experts. The problem is that the human element, the heart, is missed. What makes a good teacher a good teacher is what is in her heart. If you force her to deliver your pre-approved script she will likely lose heart. At best the ‘act according to a script’ approach could mean that a very very low level of service could be delivered by people who really shouldn’t be in the job anyway. If you need to be told you won’t get it anyway… Youth work, for example, is something between people and cannot be reduced to a set of scripted behaviours which can be acquired and reproduced. The people who think or who appear to think that this is possible have a strange mechanistic and reductionist view of people.

One reason then to treat volunteers like unpaid employees is it is easier to control them. And in the new Britian control is everything. It preserves the legitimacy of the political class and prevents dissonance. In eliminating potentially subversive informal relations the political class has also eliminated the basis for volunteering. The benefit of employees is that they are expected to follow instructions and be trained in the values and methods of the organization. Volunteers are potentially too representative of civic society, too likely to arrive with their own ideas.

In fact the main purposes of New Labour’s attempt to impose a uniform set of values on everyone through programmes such as Every Child Matters were probably to do with spinning narratives for the press. The fact that the programmes didn’t actually work was probably irrelevant; New Labour was driven by media people who cared only for the right headlines. New Labour’s ‘progressive’ agendas went no further than theory.

It is worth noting that the baton for New Labour’s shift from economic and political explanations towards ones governed by pop psychology has been picked up by the new administration. Louise Casey, New Labours ‘anti-social behaviour chief’ was duly appointed to a post by Cameron, for example.

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