Category Archives: Voluntary & Community Sector

Meet Cyril Wilmslow, volunteer extraordinaire

Meet Cyril Wilmslow, volunteer extraordinaire

This post, a bit of light relief from the academic writing, introduces a new fictional character, Cyril Wilmslow, volunteer extraordinaire.

Cyril Wilmslow’s discomfort was painfully obvious as he attempted to secure his seat in the already crowded gallery.  Close physical proximity, especially to those of his own kind, was something he tried to avoid – touching was out of the question.  Cyril shuddered visibly as he inevitably brushed past the well-rounded nylon clad knees of an immaculately attired, over odourised middle-aged lady who looked up and beamed invitingly.  She made no attempt to lean the other way and appeared to relish his unease.

Being a gentleman, Cyril grappled for the right words to apologise for his ungallant infringement of her personal space.  To his dismay he instead erupted with a senseless blustery gasp as he pressed his corpulent gut over the balustrade whilst straining to save, not hers, but his own blushes.  His blazing red cheeks, his flaxen hair plastered across his hot forehead and his cobalt waistcoat created above all, a patriotic vision of red, white and blue – a vision which, in different circumstances, Cyril would have most heartily approved of.

Cyril finally managed to squeeze his frame into the only remaining gap, next to the smiling lady.  As soon as he sat down, she gently tilted towards him as if anticipating his manly protection from what they were about to witness.  There seemed to be no escape.  He would have to remain at close range for the duration.

‘I fear the shock of what’s to come may be too much for me to bear,’ she sighed, clearly seeking comfort before the proceedings had even begun.

Cyril had that effect on people.  As he would remind his wife every morning at breakfast,

‘I have an aura of compassion that draws the sad and the sick wherever I go, Mrs W.’

In fact, the conversation at breakfast just an hour earlier had followed the usual pattern.  Sitting at an immaculately laid breakfast table, Cyril tucked in his napkin and consumed his bran flakes with military precision, starting with the top of the bowl and working his way downwards in a clockwise motion.  As ever, Cyril was oblivious to the clanking that reverberated around the small kitchen as he used his spoon to round up any deviant flakes, and oblivious to Mrs W’s flinching.   Mrs W never complained, so how could he possibly know that the sound drove her to distraction every morning?

In truth, Cyril was a real stickler for good table manners, always the first to spot the foul misdeeds of a fellow diner such as shovelling peas and what he contemptuously regarded as ‘chomping’.  He struggled immensely with the communal dining experience in the staff canteen and could not help scowling at offenders, making them feel dreadfully uneasy.  They could not know what they had done to displease but would be left in no doubt that whatever it was, their sin would never be absolved.

That morning at breakfast Cyril picked up his neatly folded Cambridge News and glanced at the headlines,


‘Oh dear Mrs W’ he exclaimed, ‘another blessed soul has slipped through the net.’

Mrs W, waiting for Cyril to hand over his empty cereal bowl in exchange for a quieter plateful of mushrooms and scrambled eggs, asked,

‘Pardon, what’s that dear?’

Irritated at having to repeat himself Cyril retorted loudly, ‘I said yet another blessed soul slips through the next.  I would’ve talked him out of it.  Convinced him that life’s always worth living!’

Mrs W, a consistent and compliant player in the breakfast liturgy, declared,

‘Perhaps I shouldn’t say it Mr W but you’re a pillar of society, you are the life-blood of the Cambridge Samaritans!’

Cyril could not agree more but knew it would appear conceited to say so.  Yes, it was true.  Total strangers told him their life stories, their tragedies and tales – at the Coop checkout, on the guided bus and in the queue at the post office.  That was why he did what he did; one night a week as a Good Samaritan and one day a week as a Witness Service Volunteer, comforting the victims and witnesses of all manner of crimes.

Back on the gallery, resigned to the burden of consoling his new neighbour, Cyril made himself as comfortable as he could.  Looking around, he admired the symbols of office with reverence and reflection, sharing an acute sense of occasion with everyone present, officials and public alike.  The solemnity of the audacious yet utilitarian backdrop, designed by the town cemetery architect did not appear to dampen the anticipation of what could well turn out to be the best show in town.

Cyril had been here many times before but today was different.  This time he was a member of the public and he had personal knowledge of the major protagonist.

All present were about to be both fascinated and repulsed.

More to follow after the PhD…



Structuring community: resilience or resistance?

Structuring community: resilience or resistance?

This post is prompted by Lynne Berry’s keynote at the ‘Turning the Corner’ Conference, Anglia Ruskin University, September 2014.  Lynne Berry OBE is Chair of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing.

In her address Berry contemplated the future of volunteering over the next twenty years in the context of our ageing population and the new legislation on health and social care. She wondered if the current structure of charitable organisations would survive and talked of building a new narrative and of specialist roles including providers of ‘mutual support’.  She also invited us to consider volunteering organisations from a different angle, posing the possibility of,

‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services.’

The suggestion that we need a structure for ‘being there’, and the implication that the very act of ‘being there’ could be construed as a voluntary service, prompts a number of questions about volunteering.  In my post on, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’ (January 2014), I warn against the danger of ignoring basic needs, such as having some form of day-to-day human contact, which can be met via a simple act of kindness, no matter how small (this was in response to Lindsay Levkoff Lynn’s 2014 prediction for NESTA about extreme volunteering).  In this post I consider the question of ‘structure’ in the context of Berry’s invitation.  In my next I will consider the question of ‘services’.

It’s not that I’m against structure as such.  As a sociologist I spend much of my time observing and thinking about structure in society.  However, in working towards the final conclusion of my doctoral thesis on community inside higher education, I do find myself questioning the utility of structure as applied to the notion of a university community – a task that is especially challenging when, as a researcher, I find myself at different times inside or on the margins of that community, depending on the day, the role, the task and so on.

Sarah Mann considers alienation in the learning community in the context of online learning environments and cites Derrida’s understanding of community as something that has ‘an inside and an outside’ (Caputo 1997).  The word ‘community’ can presuppose the idea of exclusion and as Mann says,

‘belonging and sharing in common imply not belonging and sharing in common.’ (my emphasis)

Mann concludes that belonging or having a shared purpose is not at issue.  Rather, what seems to be at issue is the opening up of possibilities for expression (e.g. seeking understanding; making explicit norms and assumptions in order to question and configure them more appropriately; and voicing different experiences, histories and positions, and having these accounts heard).  Facilitating dialogue is more critical than establishing a sense of belonging, in the quest for reducing alienation (Mann 2005).

In my thesis I ask whether a sense of ‘community’ is somehow structured, or if not, should it be; that is, imposed and regulated.  UEA’s Corporate Plan 2008-2012 for example, declared, ‘we are a scholarly community within a wider community… the cohesion of our own community depends on parity of esteem and a sense of collegiality and mutual obligation.’

Mann describes a ‘dynamic of compliance’ which pulls teachers and learners towards a ‘surface form of harmony’ – sound familiar?

I’m drawn towards Mann’s suggestion that we resist the idea of certainty contained in a consensus-based (or more structured) view of community, ‘in order to maintain openness to the possibility that the future might bring something which is as yet unimagined or unknown.’

Ron Barnett, in acknowledging the existence of structure, or structures in the contemporary university, concludes that the space for an academic community to be an academic community is shrinking and that structure as such may tend to obtrude into the human relationships of a community.  There is too much structure (Barnett 2004).

So, where does this leave Berry’s proposal for ‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services’?

Perhaps we should think of ‘being there’ as a form of structuring itself.  After all, as Berry stated in May 2009, there is a, ‘mutuality that engages us all.’

‘…Ties that bind. Contacts that help build strong, cohesive and resilient communities. These acts of citizenship build communities that can withstand snowstorms, unemployment, fire and flood…The personal experience of volunteering helps build lives and communities; and through the power of volunteering we can make a difference.  We all need help sometimes.’ (Berry 2009)

If this is a form of structuring within society, how might it relate to the notion of, ‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services’?

Was Berry envisaging the emergence of new organisational forms, arising from communities, or was she telling existing community organisations to transform themselves, to re-structure?  Her audience at Anglia Ruskin in September comprised representatives from charities and social enterprise.  All no doubt, concerned about their future role and indeed, existence.  I was there representing ARVAC, the Association for Research in the Voluntary & Community Sector.

Professor Jenny Pearce assessed the potential of community organising in the UK at the ARVAC 2014 Annual Lecture.  Writing in the ARVAC Bulletin (Issue 121), Pearce discusses the possibility of a ‘resistant citizenship’ which may be short of ‘activism’ but could still amount to a new form of organising in the community that contributes to a, ‘greater sense of belonging to place and more intra and inter neighbourhood relationships capable of giving voice to local needs.’

On the face of it, the Berry and Pearce descriptions are similar – ‘ties that bind’, ‘intra and inter neighbourhood relationships’.  However, a significant difference is their use of the terms ‘resilient’ (Berry) and ‘resistant’ (Pearce).  Resilient communities may ensure their survival but they do not necessarily challenge the current social order; they are more likely to reproduce it.  Resistant communities have the potential to challenge and change the social order.

Also, whilst Berry endorsed the role of the voluntary sector as a campaigner at her Anglia Ruskin address, I suspect she does not envisage the sector’s role as an agent for change.  In an interview with Third Sector in January 2014, Berry referred to the future charity workforce as a ‘post-employment group of portfolio workers’, drawn from a growing group of people who are retired for up to twenty years; a group that will have a lot to offer but will have high expectations of the charities they support.  She said, ‘this generation will contain a lot of stroppy older women who want a bit more.’  That’s about as radical as it gets.

According to Pearce, citizens today are offered the role of consumers and little else.  I wonder if Berry is offering much the same.

What real purpose would Berry’s new structure serve – resilience or resistance?

In my next post I will consider what ‘services’ may mean in this context.

The ARVAC AGM and Annual Conference, on ‘Talking out of turn: getting community voices heard’ is taking place at The Circle in Sheffield on 20th November 2014.

Book your place here –


ARVAC, The Association for Research in the Voluntary & Community Sector

Barnett, R. (2004). Epilogue: Reclaiming Universities from a Runaway World. Reclaiming Universities from a Runaway World. M. Walker and J. Nixon. New York, Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Caputo, John D (1997). Deconstruction in a nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida Fordham University Press

Mann, S. J. (2005). “Alienation in the learning environment: a failure of community?” Studies in Higher Education 30(1): 43-55.–first-independent-Social-Impact-Report- [accessed 25th October 2014] [accessed 25th October 2014]