Like the USA federal and state governments, the government of the United Kingdom, lead by Prime Minister David Cameron, is hoping that its citizens will step up and volunteer their time — work for free — to provide local services that local and federal governments no longer want to fund. Cameron calls this the big society drive. He wants volunteers — unpaid staff — to take over the staffing of post offices, libraries, transport services. He never says that it’s being done to save money: he says that staffing these organizations with volunteers will empower individuals and give them a greater voice in their communities.
Anyone who knows me or this blog knows that I am passionate about involving volunteers, so much so that I do not trust a nonprofit or community-focused initiative that does not involve volunteers – and does not involve them in more than rudimentary tasks. I believe involving volunteers does benefit communities far beyond money, and have said so many times (see the list of links at the end of this blog).
But let’s be clear: Cameron is being disingenuous about why he wants volunteers engaged in these programs. It’s all about defunding programs, not about increasing community involvement.
If he were serious, then he would be talking about increasing the money for the resources needed (training, people, etc.) to involve larger numbers of volunteers. He would be talking about increasing funds to Volunteering England, the primary institution in England for tracking, supporting and celebrating volunteering in the country, not cutting them.
The criticisms have been going on for a while now in the British press (‘Big society’ museum plans in Liverpool condemned, 19 July 2010). But this month, the criticisms seem everywhere:
- Spending cuts ‘destroying big society’ concept, says retiring head of Community Service Volunteers (CSV), 7 February 2011. She asserts that these cuts will make it harder for people to do more in their communities, not easier!
- The ‘big society’ is collapsing under its inherent absurdity, 6 February 2011. “The ugly implication, habitual to champions of the big society, is that such unpaid civic activity does not already support every established charity and volunteer effort.” (emphasis mine)
- Liverpool withdraws from government ‘big society’ pilot, 4 February 2011. Liverpool City Council leader said government cuts threaten the future of many local volunteer groups.
- And, ofcourse, all the stories about Lord Nat Wei, the British official charged with kick-starting volunteering in the U.K. and encouraging citizens to take over the delivery of a variety of community services, who has found that volunteering to run this initiative three days a week is incompatible with “having a life”, which I blogged about earlier this month.
I hope that US politicians who are making similar noises about saving money with volunteers are paying attention; this is what is in store for you if you get serious “big” ideas about volunteers. The criticism will be 10 times louder in the USA!
By all means, let’s undertake activities to involve more volunteers in nonprofits and the government in the USA – AND LET’S PAY FOR THAT. Volunteers don’t just magically show up and get the work done, without a tremendous amount of money and paid staff to support them. Even Wikimedia online volunteers aren’t free!
Also see these blogs on related subjects:
- Government support re: volunteerism increasing worldwide (and why governments aren’t at all ready for what they are asking for)
- Another anti-volunteer union; includes a review of the value of volunteers