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Voluntary Sector Assembly - What’s up with Volunteering 24 June 2014

This Voluntary Sector Assembly (VSA) saw a lively discussion about volunteering, its role in the community and some of the dilemmas arising as part of the changing political landscape at a national regional and local level.

The starting point for the discussion were presentations by our key note speakers:

Key note Speakers - click here to view videos of the speeches
Dave Sharples from Voluntary Action Oldham gave a lively presentation highlighting both the energy and endeavours of volunteers, we were given a potted history of the changes in volunteering over the last 20 years reflecting on the volunteering opportunities that occurred in the community under the conservative government from 1979-97, the rise in volunteering under the Labour government form 1997-2010 and finally to the landscape of the coalition administration.

Bren Fawcett from NEPHRA gave an inspiring presentation about the work of a neighbourhood group in North Manchester and how it grew from a neighbourly attempt to clear up a small patch of waste land to a Residents Association with its own building and a real hub of the community. Click here to view Bren's presentation

Greg Harris from Volunteer Centre Manchester talked about the range of work of the volunteer centre, supporting volunteers, delivering training on volunteer management and the changing nature of what volunteers want to do and what organisations want their volunteers to do.

Group Discussions
Is volunteering having an identity crisis?

It is clear from the discussion that took place that the perception of volunteering is changing and in some ways may be undergoing an identity crisis. Most of those present had a view about the ethical use of volunteers and spoke passionately about the need for a moral base for including people as volunteers both to meet the needs of service users but also to meet the needs of the volunteers.

Department of Work and Pensions, Compulsory Activity and The impact of sanctions
There are various schemes when individuals may have to undertake compulsory activity whilst receiving benefits. This activity can take place in voluntary organisations. It is sometimes referred to as volunteering. Many people said this was confusing the meaning of volunteering and it should only refer to time that was freely given.

There were worries about the application of sanctions
a) When people were volunteering in a useful activity and were being mandated to go to a low quality placement instead
b) Would VCS groups be expected to provide information to the DWP that could lead to sanctioning of an individual who receives benefits whilst volunteering or undertaking compulsory activity with them

Volunteering and Employability
Much was made of the benefits of volunteering to individuals, mostly in the form of better outcomes for employability or steps closer to the job market. It is almost inescapable that the debates and discussion are couched in the language of the prevailing political viewpoints around, economic activity, co-production and self-help.

There is a developing tension within the sector, born out by our discussions, based on a resistance to government policy and the drive to have those receiving benefits undertaking ‘volunteering’. Those present felt that this undermined the principle of volunteering and should be resisted. Some present identified an issue with people mandated by jobs advisors to become volunteers, when they needed intensive support to maintain their volunteering, there was an expectation on volunteer involving organisations and volunteer centres to provide this for them, without a proper exploration of the issues, the costs to the organisations or the impacts on the volunteers.

What volunteering should be or could be
There was much discussion about what volunteering should be: its strengths as a purely voluntary activity which people engage in for altruistic purpose. At the same time it was acknowledged that volunteering has become for some the practical route into employment through furthering people’s experiences and this should be encouraged.

There was debate as to what to call compulsory volunteering activity, in ways that did not negatively impact volunteering that wasn’t compulsory programmes but that also did not stigmatise people participating in mandated activity.

The most heated discussions were in relation to workfare programmes, ESA and employability programmes, which were increasingly referring clients to volunteering to satisfy the need of the DWP or other government department rather than meeting the needs of the volunteers and the organisations they are involved in. No clear conclusion could be reached in such a short space of time but it is clear is that this debate should be built on through the other representative groupings arranged around volunteering.

Following on from the discussions were a set of workshops.

Foodbanks – A Necessary Evil or a Curse? by Mark Greenwood, Wai Yin Society 
Having fun with Evaluation by Sinéad O’Connor, Manchester MIND

Workshop leaflets:
Confidence and coping
Recovering outcomes

The Role of Community Transport by Terry Crewe, Manchester Community Transport 
Individual Electoral Registration - Your Vote Matters - Make Sure You're In by Sue Davison and Salima Jones, Electoral Services Unit, Manchester City CouncilClick here to view the presentation
Everything you always wanted to know about sexual orientation monitoring... but were afraid to ask by Valeska Matziol, Lesbian and Gay FoundationClick here to view the presentation