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Failing to develop volunteering could further marginalise the poor

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There is a rise in public service volunteering.

Litter pickers, good neighbours, snow wardens, classroom helpers, school governors, police cadets, health champions: the list of public service volunteer roles is lengthening.

Public services have always been supplemented by volunteering but the difference today is that services at local and national level are putting the expansion of volunteering at the centre of their survival. With budgets falling and demand rising, the attraction of low-cost volunteers is obvious, and there is a case for their quality and impact.

In the RSA’s recent report, Volunteering and Public Services, we argue that greater volunteering gives an opportunity for services to be redesigned as more participative, inclusive and accountable, better adapted to the crucial challenges of prevention and behaviour change.

Volunteering has a social gradient. Levels are much higher in the south east of England than the north east but a more detailed look confirms that economic factors are not the only ones that matter. 

The report brings together data from the English Indices of Multiple Deprivation and the Place Survey in an interactive map which illustrates the relationship between general deprivation and volunteering deprivation. For example, Sunderland’s volunteering level is 6% below what would be expected, whereas Hackney and Islington, among the most deprived boroughs in London, actually show rates of volunteering higher than the capital’s average. Cornwall is among the highest third of authorities in terms of deprivation, yet scores among the top 5% for volunteering. 

Factors such as age, rurality, health, faith, ethnicity and educational level have a big influence on the likelihood of volunteering. As councils and their partners develop strategies to maximise volunteering they will need to go with the grain to an extent, but must also become adept at going against the grain in order to widen inclusion.  Evidence from programmes like Health Champions and Volunteering for Stronger Communities shows there are no ‘no-go areas’ for volunteering. Highly accessible opportunities in the right places, at the right times, with the right partners can be transformative.

There is increasing call for volunteers, but is the public likely to answer? Do public service leaders have sufficient insight into what motivates and sustains people to volunteer formally and informally in order to deliver the type of change they wish to see? The challenge is not just to expand volunteering, but to do so in a way that is socially equitable. Unless more can be done to raise levels of volunteering where they have been traditionally low, there is a risk that increased reliance on volunteering will be bad news for the poorest and most marginalised in our society. 

Paul Buddery, deputy director public services and communities at the RSA

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