• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Do good, but do it our way

Not so long ago volunteering was associated with a genuine ethos of service and with an act of altruism.

What endowed volunteering with an attractive moral quality was that people performed an action or provided a service to others without any compulsion. This was an act based on one’s own free will and motivated by the conviction that it was the right thing to do.

The act of volunteering continues to retain its inspiring moral qualities to this day, and we rightly regard the volunteer who helps others as more virtuous as someone whose behaviour is entirely dominated by self-interest. When the ethos of service appears to be conspicuously absent in much of public life it is not surprising that volunteering is celebrated as a highly valued accomplishment.

Regrettably, volunteering has been turned into an institution that is promoted on the grounds of its benefits for the volunteer and for the community. Consequently the meaning of volunteering has been thoroughly transformed. When governments self-consciously promote and administer volunteering schemes it is evident that it has nothing to do with the exercise of free will.

Take the organisation Volunteering Australia. It was established by the government’s Office for the Not-for-Profit Sector. Volunteering Australia claims to “represent the diverse views and needs of the volunteer community while promoting the activity of volunteering as one of enduring social, cultural and economic value”.

The preposterous concept of a volunteer community is testimony to the professionalisation of what was at one time perceived as a spontaneous act. A community of professional volunteers would be a clearer representation of the lobby that Volunteering Australia speaks for. What’s even more disturbing is that volunteering is advocated not because it is something that is good in itself but because the Australian government “recognises” that it “delivers a number of key social and economic benefits”.

The institutionalisation of volunteering destroys the meaning of an altruistic act. Anyone visiting the website of Volunteering Australia could be excused for interpreting volunteering as an instrument for skills acquisition and enhancing one’s career opportunities. The website declares that “good quality, appropriate training and skills development is something (that) Volunteering Australia champions”. It runs a National Volunteer Skills Centre and places a great emphasis on training people to be volunteers.

“As a volunteer, you have the right to be provided with sufficient training to do your job,” it tells potential candidates for the volunteering profession.

And just in case you are worried about paper qualifications, Volunteering Australia provides certificates I, II and III in active volunteering, which it claims “are the first of their kind: nationally recognised qualifications for volunteers”.

The official promotion of volunteering is motivated by the recognition that the disengagement of large sections of society from public life represents a very real challenge for governments. Attempts to confront the problem of civic disengagement often turn into desperate efforts to invent quick-fix administrative solutions to what is a fundamental cultural process of social and moral disenchantment.

It is worth noting that policymakers throughout the Western world have embraced volunteering as something of a “big idea” for getting the public to re-engage with society. The European Union designated this year as the European Year of Volunteering. Speaking a language that echoes that of Volunteering Australia, the EU’s official document asserts that volunteering “can provide people with new skills and competencies that can improve their employability”. It adds that “this is especially important at this time of economic crisis”.

Unfortunately, the bureaucratisation of volunteering makes it hard to promote as a public virtue. People who genuinely feel inspired to volunteer do so because they feel strongly about the need to contribute to their community.

A sense of social obligation to the community and the desire to help others has encouraged millions of people to volunteer in the past. Today’s volunteering professionals do not believe that people can still be expected to serve others out of a sense of civic duty.

In the so-called volunteering community, acts of solidarity motivated by altruism are often caricatured as “traditional” volunteering. Terms such as “anachronistic” and “traditional” are used to disparage volunteering that is driven by the impulse to do good for others. The ideals of selfless volunteering are dismissed as a luxury that only the rich can afford. Civic virtue has been recast as an elitist indulgence.

In Britain, advocates of the professionalisation of volunteering argue their so-called “inclusive” approach permits the benefits of volunteering to be enjoyed by people on low incomes. Their advocacy of a more inclusive approach to volunteering is based on the patronising assumption that, unlike the great and the good, working-class people need economic incentives to act virtuously. It overlooks the fact, historically, people suffering deprivation have been more than ready to sacrifice their time to support causes in which they believed. What drove the unpaid union organiser or the official of a co-operative society were strong convictions and a sense of civic virtue. They did not require a certificate I in volunteering to give up their time to help others. The so-called elitist traditional approach was far more inclusive than contemporary schemes that bribe people to pretend to volunteer.

What is truly tragic about the professionalisation of volunteering is that it implicitly evades the challenge of motivating people - especially the young - through appealing to their sense of solidarity and community. Society needs to motivate its youth to possess a sense of civic duty precisely because it is good in and of itself. We can’t always do good, and certainly not all of the time. The impulse of self-interest is always an important element of human behaviour. But self-interest notwithstanding, a vibrant community must always attempt to foster a climate where altruistic behaviour is accepted and affirmed.

Thankfully, despite the attempt to bureaucratise a fine old civic virtue, real volunteers are still doing the business. They are those unassuming and often anonymous individuals who don’t possess paper qualifications as mentors or facilitators or animators. Let them thrive.

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