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Martin Martin Gollan, Support and Development manager

Last night the North East Together Network held yet another interesting and thought provoking event, this one on the future of volunteering.

The evening’s key note speaker, George Thomson CEO of Volunteer Scotland, set us off with a series of reflections, ideas and actions arising from a ten week study leave taken last summer. During his ten weeks, George travelled up and down the UK from Bo’ness to Oxford by way of Sunderland, Liverpool and all points in-between.

His journey brought him into contact with a wide array of academics, voluntary sector leaders and others as he deliberated the meaning of public value and its connection to volunteering, community spirit and grassroots leadership.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering reports of Britain’s social mobility postcode lottery, George Thomson’s findings were of a middle class and corporate capture of volunteering and an absence of active volunteers from poor and marginalised communities.

George offered  examples of the increasing popularity of volunteering at high profile civic events such as Cheltenham Festival and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations, where volunteers were asked to do what had previously been paid work.

Drawing upon these examples and conversations with people living in socially and economically marginalised communities Thomson’s proposition is that volunteering is becoming gentrified. Like all gentrification processes the result is to exclude through various barriers, including language and practice, people from particular backgrounds or communities.

The challenge therefore becomes how to make volunteering and community activism more relevant to those communities currently excluded and to extend its reach beyond an articulate and mobile middle class or corporate sector.

To begin to meet this challenge George has developed the community bubble, a space, which could be in a bar or a café but in Glasgow this summer is an actual branded Community Bubble tent where people can meet and talk about their communities, activism and how to effect change.

In the table discussions that followed we were invited to consider what the future of volunteering could/would look like. Here a (resolvable?) tension appeared. Specifically between the requirement on organisations to have the necessary policies, procedures and systems in place to check, place and monitor volunteers as against a potentially farther reaching, inclusive and more flexible, informal volunteering that simply offers the opportunity to do something.

Those processes, procedures and systems come in part from the need to ensure volunteering is safe both for the volunteers and beneficiaries. However there can be demands from funders or commissioners to have systems in place as a condition of funding or a contract. In practice these conditions can create bureaucracy that in turn can put people off volunteering. 

Newcastle CVS will shortly be producing a paper that considers the effect public sector procurement can have on governance and practice within voluntary organisations. Using recent examples from the voluntary and private sector the paper ask if a strategy based on delivery of public sector contracts can have negative impacts for individual organisations and the sector as a whole.

But back to the networking event, it was clear that we were not going to crack this particular nut in 20 minutes on a Thursday evening. Just how difficult the challenge might be and how far we are from finding answers was made clear when on leaving the event there a poster in the lift was spotted advertising opportunities for ‘paid volunteering’!