David Cameron has announced staff will have the right to three days paid leave from work to do volunteering. Richard Linsert, who works for a charity, explains why it won’t work.

[Photo via Flickr cc]
[Photo: Howard Lake via Flickr cc]
The Tories tell us that they love volunteering. They can’t resist the idea, it seems, of delivering public services like libraries without paying staff – despite the fact that you need skilled professionals to run public services, with the help sometimes of volunteers who can fill in the gaps. The Tories also love volunteering, it seems, because it fits with a fantasy of self-help and community where the state doesn’t get involved. This vision was part of what David Cameron, when first elected, called the “Big Society” – a return to a time when people had no right to services from the welfare state, but had to depend on handouts from philanthropists. But the problem isn’t just that Cameron is attacking public services and the people who use them – his volunteering scheme won’t benefit charities and community organisations either.

I work for an organisation that provides support for community groups in outer London: there are over five hundred groups in our borough alone. The borough is home to one big, national organisation – and some charities are huge. Cancer Research UK, for example, has an annual income of almost £500 million, funds over 4,000 scientists and medical staff and works with 40,000 volunteers.

Most community groups are much smaller than this. In our borough few have any paid staff: they depend on volunteers. Mostly, these are people who have a personal connection with what they do. One group organises for mental health professionals to provide services in schools because the son of one of the founders killed himself while at school and suffering from depression. Others organise luncheon clubs for other people who speak their language or share their faith, where elderly people have a hot meal and sing the songs from their youth back home – which keeps them active, cheerful and out of hospital. Or they organise around an interest in amateur dramatics, stamp collecting, orchids or model railways.

Millions of people in Britain volunteer on this basis. The link between volunteer and organisation can also arise in a more structured way, probably through a Volunteer Centre, of which there are several hundred across the country. People have various reasons for volunteering. They may have an altruistic desire to support their community, or they may want something to put on their CV after a long gap caused by illness – often mental illness – or they may want to get out of the house and improve their confidence. Volunteer Centres help them find a volunteering role that suits them.

Volunteer Centres also work with community groups to help them make the best use of volunteers. They can help groups think through what tasks they can reasonably ask volunteers to do, and what training volunteers will need. If the person will have regular contact with children or vulnerable adults, legal checks need to be carried out. These issues need to be discussed, forms filled in and policies written, and this means that developing volunteering placements takes resources, and so – and people are shocked when they discover this – they can be in short supply. Funders want money to go on services for deprived people, not on what they see as admin, and surveys suggest that the public thinks the same. There is no consistent national funding, either, for Volunteer Centres – they survive on a patchwork of different income streams in every location.

How does Cameron’s plan for three days volunteering for everyone fit into this picture? The fact is that community groups want regular volunteers. They want someone who understands their role and the service they provide, and who can be relied on to come in every week. There are actually very few tasks suitable for one-off volunteers. We occasionally get enquiries from corporates who have a group of people who are going on an away day and want to do some volunteering – as a team-building exercise, perhaps, or to meet some target for corporate social responsibility. We simply don’t have an endless supply of scout huts for dressed-down bankers to paint while they bond with each other. What groups need is someone to staff the Samaritans office every Thursday morning, to answer calls in Punjabi on the domestic violence helpline or to help ten-year-olds improve their chess, every Saturday until further notice. And all those services get harder to deliver as funding declines and the number of people who want support grows.

Instead, the Tories seek to promote their own agenda for charities. This has its comic side, as in the Telegraph’s long-running campaign against the RSPCA, which it claims has become a “sinister” animal rights organisation – mainly because the RSPCA feels that blood sports like hunting aren’t compatible with animal welfare. The appointment of William Shawcross to head the Charity Commission, however, is in deadly earnest. Dame Suzi Leather, the previous chair, had angered the right by suggesting that private schools could only retain charitable status if they delivered some public benefit. Shawcross was determined to oppose such “politicisation” – charities should help the poor, but not ask why people were poor in the first place, or if Con-Dem policies were making things worse. The Lobbying Act has therefore introduced bureaucratic controls which made it harder for charities to do campaigning.

Before his appointment, Shawcross was a high-profile member of the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, which promotes Western military intervention around world in the name of human rights. The Society (itself a charity) has joined in the attack on the last few months on Cage, the group which campaigns for the civil rights of people, such as Muslims, affected by the “war on terror” and initiatives such as the government’s Prevent strategy. Cage are not a charity, so Shawcross couldn’t attack them directly – instead, he went for two charities that funded them, the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. After Charity Commission interventions, both bodies made public statements that they had stopped funding Cage and would never do so again. As the charity press pointed out, these were worrying developments for many more organisations. Cage had not broken the law, and neither had their funders, who had acted entirely within Charity Commission regulations. It seemed clear that the groups were being attacked simply because they disagree with government policy – the complete opposite of Shawcross’s vaunted depoliticisation.

The other way in which the government promotes its agenda is by using charities to help in the privatisation of public services. Like New Labour before it, the Con-Dems have created tendering processes which are open to charities as well as the private sector. Charities and community groups need the money, and they can have something to offer here, when public services can be distant and bureaucratic, and charities can fill in gaps and make contact with excluded groups – such as those Asian pensioners at their luncheon club. However, community groups regularly complain that they get squeezed out since bigger, more corporate, charities are better placed to do deals for big-money contracts. And there are concerns that those contracts affect the values of charities, in the same way that housing associations have been transformed from small community-based groups into well-funded corporate-style bodies. HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust, which has a number of NHS contracts to provide sexual health services, has written about how charities can “provide highly cost effective services” and “can be more flexible” than other providers. Barnardo’s has rightly attracted condemnation for providing children’s services in UK Border Agency detention centres – the statement by its Chief Exec that “it’s sad, but there needs to be enforced departure” only legitimises the whole process.

Oscar Wilde wrote that the best of the poor are never grateful for charity – they are aware that, rather than being given crumbs, they should be sitting at the table. Wilde was right: it’s disgraceful that billions of pounds is available to replace Trident, while buying a minibus for disabled children depends on sponsored walks and cake stalls. It’s true that charities can reflect the limits of the liberal values held by the middle-class people who often run them. Yet charities and community groups have another side – across the country thousands of ordinary people keep organisations going, using their skills and commitment to sustain a part of the social fabric. This kind of grassroots activity isn’t something the Tories are interested in supporting – in terms of concrete detail, if Cameron did really want to encourage volunteering, he could fund Volunteer Centres and community groups, both of which have been cut under the Con-Dems. In more general terms, you can imagine a socialist society where real use was made of the thoughtful creativity which working-class people regularly devote to activities from sports clubs to sponsored walks. In the meantime, Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle” – for millions of people those political struggles happen, perhaps in a small way, in charities.


  1. Properly regulated means making organisations accountable for the care they provide and for the health and safety of workers which is not always the case for services that use volunteers. Workers, supported by their trade unions can fight for this so it doesn’t have to be a top down initiative or implementation as Colin seems to be implying. NHS statutory services are much more stringently regulated than the charity sector for example which is expensive and often affects who wins the funding for so-called “non-essential” services. IOW, it’s cheaper to let the charity run them than to fund more tightly regulated stat services. The consequence of this is invariably lower wages and worse conditions. Compare the pay and conditions of drug workers working in the NHS and those who work for local charities for example. Charities cherry pick the less complex work and leave the much more complex support to the stat sector. The Rotherham case is an example of how cuts contributed to poor care, rather than making them accountable those running them turned a blind eye to abuse. So do we campaign to make these services more accountable which will mean better regulation this side of the revolution or do we simply condemn state regulation as interference and hand it over to less regulated charities run by volunteers?

  2. I’ve a lot of sympathy with Ray’s view that if somebody is doing a job they should be paid, and, as the article points out, charity involvement can be a form of privatisation.

    But when he says that charities “are not accountable in the way that statutory services are” you have to ask – how accountable are statutory services? How accountable is national government really to ordinary people? Or even local government? What’s revealed by cases like Rotherham is local councils which have been run by the Tories or Labour for decades, with no transparency at all. So when he calls for volunteering to be “properly regulated” – for more state control – why should we trust the state? In fact, it’s people’s understandable mistrust of the state that can give charities more credibility.

    What socialism should mean is ordinary people running society from the grassroots. Some charities function like businesses, and all charities are controlled by their trustees, not by the communities they operate in. So there are all kinds of problems with charities, but looking to the state isn’t the answer.

  3. The problem with charities is that they are not accountable in the way that statutory services are. That’s not to claim that all non-stat services are bad or that all statutory services are good. During the late 90’s/early 2000’s I worked for a charity. The manager was quite unequivocal that to secure contracts he would undercut every other bid even if this meant having no idea how resources would stretch to accommodate this. Funding bids are a dark art open to the most underhand and manipulative strategies that would make bankers blush. On that basis, I think we should support statutory services and oppose the encroachment of the market which is what charities represent when bidding for services.
    I recently watched a news report about families taking in homeless people. My partner was concerned about the safety of the families involved. What concerned me was the safety of the homeless people. This kind of volunteering is not properly regulated and open to abuse. It also encourages a divisive and unfair system where the “cuddly” homeless are supported while the rest remain hidden with much less support. I’m not claiming that volunteering can’t work but in my experience it is unregulated and badly managed. Volunteers are doing a job and on that basis they should be paid for their labour like regular workers. The only people who seem to be against paying “volunteers” (many of whom have been coerced by the benefits system) are the charities who take advantage of free labour and the Tories who have a ideological reasons for bumping up their employment stats, forcing people to work for nothing and demonising those on benefits. In that climate I think socialists should have serious concerns about the encroachment of charities and volunteering in the workplace.

  4. I don’t just think “volunteering” is wrong, I think Charity is an arena Socialists must fight in and against. I worked for a charity providing 16 to 18 year olds with training. They were NEETs (not in education, employment or training). I was a teacher. There were two teachers and two support staff. Within six months our student number rose from 8 to 32 with the same staff – and each young person was another £4,500 for the charity from government funds. I was bullied by the manager. The manager thinks of himself as a bit of a Lefitie and will vote Green but his managerial survival was about young people as income and thereby his salary and position. At home he thinks Left, at work he acts Right.

    Ironically, his first passing attack on me has become a sublime joke: “how dare you bring negativity into the staffroom!” Where else do you bring negativity but the staffroom?! Yet, this manager illustrates the problem with Charities – they are vehicles for the lateral accumulation of profit. That is, charities expand in the same way as Acandemy schools expand – buy up another school or be bought up by a chain. The Charity for which I worked has an annual turnover of 54 million pounds. Teachers and other workers in the charity are paid the absolute minimum, while the executives’ pay is at Prime Minister level.

    Charities – like call centres – are the new face of neo-liberal capitalism. It’s really important to realise that strikes in Charities are entirely the same as strikes in companies and the public service. Otherwiswe we end up part of Cameron’s ‘Big Society.’

  5. Hi I think this a great article but I would just like to add a couple of things:
    1. The first is that that the new Tory strategy implies that volunteering doesn’t need any skills or that those receiving volunteers will see it has a cost free enterprise (it involves at least some training in values etc or the organisation will have to provide someone to explain what to do, safe guarding, background checks etc)
    2. That the fact that we can’t volunteer to work in a trade union shows how ideological this is.

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