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Jane Deary: Volunteering should be open to everyone

19 May 2022 Voices

With the cost-of-living crisis, stagnating wages and a public spending squeeze making this an extremely challenging period in which to make ends meet, just the normal functioning of society becomes more difficult.

In these circumstances, it’s the individual, rather than the state, who is expected to step up to the plate, to do their bit to ease the burden of the less well-off – and that’s when volunteers come into their own.

When waves are crashing against the sea wall, volunteers really are the salt of the earth but who are they and where do they come from?

Asked to describe a typical "volunteer", most of us would probably visualise a middle-class person, most likely a woman of a certain age, with enough time on her hands to put in a few hours at a charity shop, staff a jumble sale stall or shake a collection tin outside the local shopping centre.

While recent news footage of people from all backgrounds loading boxes of supplies onto trucks bound for Ukraine might challenge this stereotype, the reality is that for too long volunteering has been seen as the preserve of a single class.

Doing good works, sitting on boards and committees, and organising fundraising efforts tend to be dominated by the "salariat" – professionals, managers, and businesspeople – and while their endeavours are widely appreciated, they are not always entirely altruistic.

A recent study of the economic benefits of volunteering and social class, published in the Social Science Research journal, suggests that volunteer work is generally looked upon favourably by employers and leads to better-paid jobs.

A survey of employers found that 41% rated volunteer work as of equal importance to paid work when choosing new employees. One in five had based a recent hiring decision on a candidate’s volunteer work. 

In a separate field experiment, fictitious applications were submitted for real job vacancies, identical but for the inclusion of volunteer work. The applicants with volunteer work in their profiles were 33% more likely to be invited for interview.

People from working-class backgrounds can pay a price for volunteering. One reason, according to the study, is that the "capital" which volunteering creates has greater value for people whose jobs rely on things like reputation, soft skills, and social contacts.

Volunteers from middle or upper class backgrounds are more likely to be chosen to serve on committees or governing boards.

By contrast, manual, unskilled, casual and gig economy workers who volunteer are more likely to do the menial, routine, and relatively unskilled work of maintenance, helping out at events, providing care or transport, or coaching youth teams. 

Aside from the obvious loss of opportunities that this creates, both for potential volunteers and the organisations who could do with their help and support, this imbalance might also perpetuate what has become known as "white saviour" syndrome.

This suggests that traditional media images, which we have become used to, of healthy, white volunteers from developed countries, providing aid to poor, helpless black people in under-developed countries, may help to reinforce those roles, thereby preserving the system of inequality that supports them.

At Spark, we want to challenge those assumptions. As a social enterprise seeking to change lives for the better, we are as much about enabling as providing assistance and support to people in need.  

Volunteering should not be the preserve of a single stream of society. It should be open to men and women from different classes and ethnic backgrounds and of all ages. The rewards should be available to everyone. Our vision is of a Scotland where everyone can volunteer, more often, and throughout their lives.

Volunteering is a free choice to give our time and energy to get involved, help out and participate in our community.

Spark’s commitment to involving non-traditional volunteers reflecting the diversity of our community was instrumental in it being the first organisation in Scotland to be awarded Diversity Scotland’s Gold Charter Mark.  

We are part of an ongoing movement which believes need should be met by a social enterprise, rather than a top-down, charitable approach. As a provider of possibilities, our model is geared towards helping people to help themselves by acquiring a skill, beginning a college course, or even starting their own business.   

At a time when it’s difficult to access mental health services through the NHS, we are a stepping-stone for people to acquire counselling and employability services.

In what has been an area of deprivation for decades, we have become a facilitator of multiple services. Users might come to us for a single purpose but we open up other possibilities for them. 

The demand for volunteering has never been greater and, as prices rise and money becomes tighter, that need is only going to increase. By pandering to tired, outdated prejudices about who is best placed to meet it, we unnecessarily restrict the field and that can only be bad for everyone.

Jane Deary is chief executive of Livingston-based Spark, a social enterprise that provides a range of work and social based services to the local community

Civil Society Voices is the place for informed opinion, and debate about the big issues affecting charities today. We’re always keen to hear from anyone, working or volunteering at a charity, who has something to say. Find out more about contributing and how to get in touch.


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