Lessening Social Exclusion through Volunteering

By Susan J. Ellis

I just returned from a week’s stay in London. The National Centre for Volunteering there has been undergoing many changes, both in leadership and mission. One “internal memorandum” written by staff members to stimulate discussion is entitled: ”Volunteers in the Twenty-first Century: How Different?” I was impressed with this document and obtained permission to share an excerpt with you:

"The UK, along with most European countries, has seen accelerated trends towards multi-cultural living, and progressive weakening of the traditional 'national moral values' previously promoted by governmental and professional elites as appropriate standards for all citizens. Marriage will become a minority status, bringing big changes in child care and tax/benefit regimes...The proportion of the UK population with cultural roots traceable to other countries will rise from the 1991 level of five per cent to something much more substantial, reinforcing issues of 'integration' and 'difference.'"

"The experience of the USA seems an obvious precedent and, if current emphases on market freedom and restriction of state help to the poor continue, we may be heading for the American 'urban stress' syndrome. Already there is a noticeable trend of enquiries about volunteering at the Centre from people living in high-stress areas of London...who suffer from pressures towards 'social exclusion' and want to do something about it. This represents a cultural shift from the twentieth century pattern whereby most volunteers, whatever their race or faith, were likely to come from relatively secure home situations, and wanted to 'give something back' in thanks for their good fortune."

This perspective challenges us to consider what the role of volunteering is for poor people, particularly those we sometimes speak of as “the disenfranchised.” By and large, our traditional organizations see this part of the population as people to be served, not necessarily as people interested in activism. In fact, the common wisdom is that people who are “have nots” will not volunteer. So, in circular fashion, we rarely ask them to.

It is this issue that separates those who identify themselves as “volunteer program managers” from those who see themselves as “neighborhood organizers.” The question for me is: Why should activism and self-help be separated from support and service? One answer, of course, is rocking the boat. Or, more accurately, not rocking the boat. Volunteer programs are envisioned as “helping,” not instigating. Why?

Consider some possible scenarios to empower the people usually seen as “clients”:

  • Recruit past clients specifically to advise the organization on various issues (like an alumni board). This would reinforce past help while building the self-esteem of the advisors and giving the organization access to what might be the most important set of opinions available. Note: even if your organization as a whole does not want such input, what is stopping you from forming such an advisory group for the volunteer program itself?
  • Recruit older siblings of at-risk youngsters to be after-school group leaders and mentors. Instead of “outside” volunteers, such an approach would build neighborhood strength and encourage leadership qualities in the teenagers. Many teens feel caught between stressed parents and straying younger siblings, without a viable way to do something about what they see.
  • Train teenagers to mentor or tutor their parents. In immigrant homes, this has always occurred naturally, particularly with English-language skills. But a more formal recruitment and training approach could strengthen families. The current interest in “family literacy” programs is one excellent example of how this can work.
  • Focus on micro-enterprise development, recruiting volunteers who can work in neighborhoods to form revenue-generating businesses and cooperatives. While not the “traditional” form of volunteer activity, we ought to ask why not? If we all agree poor people need money, why not work toward that end? It may have gotten VISTA into political hot water in the 1960s, but I still don’t see anything wrong with all those craft-selling enterprises volunteers helped to create in Appalachia.

The point here is that we in volunteer leadership have to refocus our energies on involving the people we “serve” as part of their own solution. Or, as the English Centre on Volunteering paper said, tapping the desire to “do something about” an unsatisfactory situation. Historically, this is how change happens. Will we be facilitators of change or obstacles in its path?

I am reminded of the various Gallup Poll studies that provided data on the educational level of volunteers, apparently showing that the more education a person receives, the more likely s/he is to volunteer. Many interpret this data as meaning “education teaches the value of service” or some such conclusion. I, on the other hand, find myself wondering if the true reason for the data is that organization staff are most comfortable with volunteers who are as similar to themselves as possible. Given the general employee/volunteer tension issues that occur even when college graduates are recruited to work alongside other college graduates, consider the possible conflicts if an organization truly recruited blue collar workers or unskilled laborers.

What do you think? What would be the attitude of your organization if you began to facilitate self-help among your target client population? Do you already try to do this? Please share what you do!

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