THE BLOG

Big Society vs Traditional Volunteering?

09/01/2012 11:22 GMT | Updated 07/03/2012 10:12 GMT

You know what I hate more than anything in the world? Being told to calm down. I could be in a bath of spiders and be, well, not relaxed but content, then someone would tell me to calm down and I'd go nuts. I'd have been perfectly calm before, and the insinuation that something irrational that someone else has done has somehow made me look stressed is just offensive to me.

Similarly, being told that in the face of the cuts, the Big Society will save the voluntary sector really annoys me too. Mainly because the Big Society has shown very little respect for the voluntary sector so far, in spite of apparently relying on it in order for Big Society to succeed.

We've suffered cuts which have hampered our ability to help vulnerable people and some groups have closed down completely. In its urgent need to make Big Society succeed, it's forgetting about traditional concepts of volunteering completely.

Not even a week into the new year, further evidence arises that Big Society is eclipsing long held ideas about volunteering. Employment Minister Chris Grayling announced a plan to target 50,000 jobseekers to force them to volunteer. Sorry, not volunteer, "do community work." This is intended to weed out all the fake jobseekers who the Sun helpfully compared to Shameless' Frank Gallagher. A pilot scheme meant 20% stopped claiming at the prospect of having to volunteer, and 30% didn't turn up. But, 50% must have done some community work! Hooray! Big Society! They're not really scamming us! And look, they're basically rehabilitated from being layabouts to volunteering! We forced them into volunteering, but isn't that GOOD??

Erm, no. Volunteering is not something you're forced to do. It's something you CHOOSE to do. You do it VOLUNTARILY. That's why the government cleverly defined this as community work, just like helping a local lunch club, or a play group, or a homework club, or local disabled people who can't get out of the house. You know. All those activities which are advertised as volunteering opportunities in volunteer centres up and down the country.

I don't understand how the government on so many counts thinks forcing people into volunteering will engender a culture of volunteering in Britain. We hate being told what to do and what's good for us. I'm still averse to vegetables for goodness' sake. National Citizen Service gets all 16 year olds to volunteer, and it's a compulsory programme. 50,000 unemployed people will be forced into volunteering to, effectively, work for their benefits. I dread to think what next. I'll probably be told I don't need a salary for my role. My landlord will be very cross. I wonder if the prime minister will write me a letter, like being excused from PE...

This idea of Big Society is eclipsing and trampling on volunteering as a concept. It's making a mockery of it. In Nottingham, we saw over 2,000 people in the last year who decided they want to volunteer, half of them to improve their job prospects. They came in of their own accord, not because they were forced to, they wanted to. This government pledged to cut red tape, and now I worry that this cutting of red tape means cutting the definition of volunteering out completely to meet Big Society targets instead.

For me, volunteering is doing things willingly, for community benefit, for free. That's neither official nor written anywhere before but it's a good start that ought to clear up some confusion and calm me down.

See? Now I'm doing it to myself...