The View from Westminster: Roberta Blackman-WoodsCharity Insight Contributor
Volunteers must not be left to sink or swim. They need training, support and infrastructure, says Labour’s spokeswoman on civil society.
Britain has a remarkable history of charitable giving and voluntary work. The quiet determination of those seeking to help others is a tribute to our underlying values of community engagement and mutual support.
I meet voluntary groups every day who tell me that, while they love what they do, they want the government to do more to support, value and train those who give their time for free. There is a concern that, too often, volunteers are seen as a cost-free or cost-neutral resource, with insufficient consideration being given to the need for support infrastructure.
This could include volunteer centres or umbrella bodies that provide local training and information. Critically, they argue there is a role for government in funding these organisations - at least in part.
Encouraging volunteers is vital, not only for the success of those recruiting, but for the communities who depend on them. This is particularly the case for more deprived communities. Evidence submitted to the Public Administration Committee in March 2011 showed that the core groups of volunteers are concentrated in the most prosperous parts of the country.
As yet, the government does not appear to have a strategy to direct resources to the most disadvantaged areas - areas that are often suffering most from cuts to local government and where philanthropy is unlikely to make up shortfalls since wealthy individuals live elsewhere.
The government has done little to address this. Recent proposals in the Giving White Paper are likely to make only a modest contribution, and will do little to stem the financial difficulties that a number of voluntary groups are facing.
As the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations has estimated, the reality is that civil society will see its income cut by more than £1bn this year, and by at least £2.9bn per year by 2014/15. Th e £100m Transition Fund may have been established to help struggling charities but, as many have pointed out, it does not reach all groups and, in any case, is hugely oversubscribed. The government talks the language of mutuality and co-operation but its actions reveal something closer to a "sink or swim" mindset.
Not surprisingly, many voluntary groups are uneasy. A survey by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, for example, recently showed that 55 per cent of charity chief executives plan to cut staff and 35 per cent plan to cut services.
This not only undermines the confidence of volunteers and staff, but erodes the goodwill built up by their organisations over many years.
Illustration: Tilly, runningforcrayons.co.uk
Yet, despite these difficulties, what strikes me more than anything is the resilience of the sector: the overwhelming desire of people to work with existing funding streams or to redouble efforts to raise money from a wider range of sources.
Many groups are also looking at whether they can start a social enterprise, become a mutual, co-op or an employee-owned company. This demonstrates the determination and grit that has seen organisations survive not just for decades but, in some cases, for centuries.
At the same time, we welcome the recent government report under the chairmanship of Lord Hodgson that considers how to cut red tape for small charities by examining issues such as the risk of litigation, the availability of volunteering placements for unemployed people, and safeguards for the protection of vulnerable children and adults. But if the government is serious about encouraging people to volunteer, it must address more pressing issues such as the huge reductions in spending, the need to reskill and train volunteers, and the diminishing amount of spare time individuals have to spare.
It is worth remembering that what makes most people volunteer is a deep concern about a particular issue, often borne out of personal experience and a desire to make things better. As a country, we must celebrate the talents of the voluntary groups and charities; harness their passion and enthusiasm for delivering social change; and work with each other in a supportive alliance. Government action doesn't create voluntary activity but it can provide an environment that either helps or hinders it. I would like this government to do more to help.
Roberta Blackman-Woods is Labour spokeswoman on civil society.