Thursday, 14 July 2011

Why doesn't the "voluntary sector" want volunteers?


Yesterday I went to a particularly untidy briefing on the changes and developments within the health service. Amongst general moaning about GPs (not helped by the fact that the GP who was supposed to be there wasn’t  - with the resulting disgruntlement from the seven councillors at the briefing very evident) and especially their tendency to resort to medication at the start of treating mental health patients rather than make use of community-based support services.

But this isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to talk about volunteering and why so many in the “third sector” seem to have some sort of ethical problem with the idea of someone doing something to help out without getting paid.

During the discussion the matter of volunteering by individuals on Job seekers Allowance was raised – part of the work programme is to encourage people looking for work to do some voluntary work while they’re looking for paid work.

“We didn’t go on the programme on principle”

The programme seems reasonable to me but for some in the so-called voluntary sector we have this weird, warped ethical barrier – and this appears to be supported by some administering the programme as this answer from the responsible minister at another event suggests:

An audience member questioned Hurd on her personal experience of barriers to volunteering, especially for jobseekers.

Hurd agreed, saying that there was enough evidence that there was a big problem in job centres: “I’ve heard it so often it’s got to be true,” he said. “There is a big problem in some job centres where fear spreads that if you volunteer, you could lose some benefits.

“The Department for Work and Pensions has issued guidance but this is a cultural thing. It needs to go way beyond guidance and look at changing the culture within job centres.”

The problem is that the DWP staff don’t want the hassle of finding placements and the “voluntary” groups will only do it if they’re paid.

It seems to me – and has done for a long while – that the voluntary sector is, in great part, indistinguishable (other than rhetorically) from for-profit businesses competing to deliver public contracts. Much is made of being “not-for-profit” and of “social responsibility” but these are quickly set aside in the unseemly scramble for contracts.

I completely fail to see what “principle” is involved in a voluntary sector organisation refusing to take on a volunteer – I really do.


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