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Giving with a goal
12 March 2007

If you're looking to get a step ahead of the competition in a job interview these days, one of the things the experts advise is a bit of volunteering experience to spice up your CV. Volunteer work is also recommended if you want to make new friends, see the world, or generally improve your confidence, health and self esteem.

These are all desirable and positive goals, and anyone whose job it is to recruit volunteers would be remiss if they did not emphasise the benefits to the individual. A lifelong volunteer myself, I can attest to the many ways in which I have gained personally. Indeed, I would not be in my current job now had I not volunteered.

But it is legitimate to examine whether the balance has swung too far. Have people lost sight of the cause for which they are volunteering, reducing it to nothing more than a glorified work experience stint? Has the government's drive to get more people volunteering - at whatever the cost - detracted from the original aim?

A recent poll of over 1,000 people on the Volunteering England (VE) website was enlightening. More than 60% believed that "volunteering has become more about what you get than what you give" - which is all the more significant when you consider that the majority of visitors to the website work in the sector themselves, and arguably are better able to judge than the average person on the street.

In the most recent survey of the nation's volunteering, the 2005 Citizenship Survey, 18% of respondents said they would be more likely to volunteer if it benefited their career or job prospects. Employability sells. And when a great deal of funding is geared towards driving young people into jobs through volunteering, it's easy to understand why organisations so desperately reliant on the government for money are willingly complicit in pushing this agenda.

I recently spoke to a Volunteer Centre worker who lamented the decline of projects which had no obvious "output" in terms of qualifications or work experience. "It's all about young people and getting them into work," he said, "which is all well and good, but it means that schemes for older volunteers, or less vocational, less 'sexy' schemes, lose out."

And yet, I have never encountered anyone who, even if they initially took up volunteering to enhance their job prospects, failed to engage with the cause to which they are giving their free time. While it's important to have a genuine interest in your placement, does your motivation really matter?

This weekend, VE will be hosting free seminars about volunteering at the One Life Live event at Olympia in London, a three-day exhibition that opens to the public today. Many of the visitors there will be looking for a change in their lives, and will want to feel more fulfilled and satisfied.

The whole aim of the event is to focus on the self. I would argue that a volunteer who knows what they want to get out of their experience is arguably more effective than one who "just wants to help needy people".

It may be a controversial stance for this sector, but commitment and drive are important qualities in a volunteer, and the A-level student who is looking to volunteer in a hospital to increase their chances of getting into medical school is more than likely to prove reliable and turn up for their shift. When there's no obligation to turn up in the same way as there is in a paid job, it can be useful to have a focus above and beyond "helping out".

Volunteering is currently a political battleground, with all main parties after a piece of third sector action. David Cameron launched the Young Adult trust in November last year, and this week Gordon Brown spoke of encouraging migrants to help out in the community as a condition of UK citizenship.

It is clear that volunteering is now more than ever seen as a means of achieving a particular end. Not everyone in the sector may approve of the direction in which this is heading. But it would be cutting off our collective noses to spite our faces if we engaged only with those with the "purest" of motives.

Because who's to judge the value of one person's motivation over another? I certainly wouldn't want to.

Mark Restall is head of information at Volunteering England.