NAVCA has produced a very interesting analysis paper on volunteering which is well worth 30 minutes of anybody’s time. But, there’s one section in particular that’s worth consideration.
“Our default response to new ‘volunteering’ initiatives will not be semantic debate about whether they are volunteering or not. Instead we will focus on the merits of particular initiatives and how they can be improved.”
On first reading I rather glossed over it. But when I re-read it I started to get uneasy.
Does it really no longer matter what volunteering is?
I should emphasise that I don’t mean to single NAVCA out, their remit isn’t to specifically worry about volunteering. They just happen to be a current example of something that I realised I had been hearing over the last couple of years: “Stop getting hung up about what is volunteering, just get on and do it!”
Language is incredibly important. It enables us to shape our thoughts and ideas, give voice to our emotion and shape identities. To say that we shouldn’t get caught up in the semantics of volunteering, surely undermines the whole concept of volunteering? It says volunteering just isn’t important. And is that the message we want to give the millions of people who volunteer?
There has been an inexorable blurring of volunteering in national policy. A big chunk of Big Society isn’t about volunteering, it’s about social action; The DH’s strategic vision for volunteering is called ‘Social action for health and well-being: building co-operative communities’. Social Action, not volunteering is now the vogue.
Social action and volunteering aren’t interchangeable terms.Social action, to me, is a specific, often organic, way of getting involved without the structural, processed support of organisations. I do not see it is as volunteering. And I rather think most social activists do not see themselves as volunteers.
[As an aside, I think we went through a period of attempting to label anything that moved as volunteering, culminating in that artificial edifice ‘Informal’ volunteering’.]
There’s also a very practical side to this though. The recent Workfare furore showed the danger of losing the distinctiveness of volunteering. Again and again I had to explain to people (funnily enough it wasn’t to journalists) that if they are volunteers then there is no compulsion and if there is then they are not volunteers.
There are many different ways to engage, participate and get involved in our society. Each has their value, and each could probably learn from others. Yes, we need to have that debate, to understand what these ways are, how they interact and how people touch on them. But that should not mean each should lose their distinctiveness.
To ignore the debate about ‘what is volunteering’, actually fails to recognise how relevant volunteering is to today's society. It is precisely because volunteering is ever evolving that that debate is ever ongoing. We should be revelling in the fact that volunteering is such a fluid and responsive beast, that it creates debate and argument, not be frustrated and dismissive.
The day we stop debating ‘what is volunteering’ is the day volunteering dies.