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Volunteering is a win-win situation
22 April 2005
by Katherine Demopoulos

Volunteering has a strong history in the UK, but thanks to the hard-hitting team of the chancellor, Gordon Brown, and former home secretary David Blunkett, its profile has never been higher.

"What is new since 1997 is that we've seen a government that has been more committed and put more resources into volunteering than any other government," according to Volunteering England's deputy chief executive, Justin Davis Smith.

It's partly about a global acceptance that governments can't do everything, but also a genuine understanding from political heavyweights of the real benefits of volunteering - developing skills and, in sector jargon, building social capital, Davis Smith adds. Essentially, it's also the realization that nurturing the voluntary sector is "a win-win situation for both the economy and citizens".

Gordon Brown, himself a genuine volunteering enthusiast, deemed 2005 the Year of the Volunteer in his 2004 budget speech. He wants charities to harness the publicity to bolster their ranks with marginalised groups and young people, as well as draw attention to the crucial work that volunteers do.

There are already 26 million people engaged in some kind of informal volunteering in England and Wales, according to the government's 2003 Citizenship Survey, and the number of people involved in a wider range of community activity grew by 1.5 million between 2003 and 2001. Data indicates that another 11 million do want to help, but just don't know how. Community Service

Volunteers, the largest volunteering and training organisation in the UK, is a perfect example of how volunteering has taken off. Starting with just one employee 40 years ago, it now has 900.

With the launch of the Russell Commission in May 2004, Mr Brown demonstrated a serious commitment to drawing young people, in particular, into volunteering. "Already 3 milion young people volunteer each year; 41 per cent of young people are involved in formal volunteering and 67 per cent in some sort of informal volunteering. But we can do more," he said this year. He wants to see young and older people fulfil their potential through mentoring, the setting up of a national volunteering framework and also wants business to be more involved.

Preliminary results from the commission's consultations with young people are positive, although they do suggest that volunteering will need to be re-branded if significant numbers of young people are to be involved. It also discovered that the opportunity to improve skills and employability is a key reason for young people to participate.

The corporate sector is also getting more actively involved or, at least, encouraging its employees to do so through volunteering and payroll giving - for which small and medium-sized businesses are awarded a £500 grant.

Blue-chip companies have moved away from solely giving money to charity, as that's a practice that isn't necessarily sustainable during an economic downturn. Instead, they're encouraging staff to take time off and volunteer, although it is likely that this has more to do with the 'corporate social responsibility' section of their annual reports, rather than a truly altruistic ethos.

And businesses have certainly become more aware of the benefits to themselves of employees' active involvement in the community. Staff learn new skills that are transferable to their role at the company and it's also a more effective way of bonding teams than tired favourites, such as paintballing on staff away-days.

But however rosy the prospect of increased cash from a more involved government and greater employee participation, there are still questions besetting the sector.

Two charities are facing lawsuits from volunteers, centring on their legal status as either employee or worker. There's no precedent for volunteers being accorded the higher 'employee' status, but some have won worker status and the right to a minimum wage.

Public sector volunteering isn't as well attended as volunteer groups would wish, and the issue of how to value volunteer time in financial terms is also still in question. The Charity Commission has just rejected proposals, including a financial valuation in new accounting rules for charities, but some sector participants want time assessed thoroughly enough for inclusion in GDP estimates.

For now though, the sector is pushing those concerns aside to concentrate on what Mr Brown terms "an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of not just those volunteers here today, but all those across the country: a chance to tell everyone about the volunteering opportunities available and encourage more people, more employers, more organizations to get involved as we strive in 2005 to engage a new generation in serving their communities."

From: The Guardian