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Why ‘extreme’ volunteering is too extreme

At the turn of the year I read NESTA’s ‘14 for 2014’, predictions compiled by their ‘team of in-house experts’ for the coming 12 months.  My attention was drawn to the topic ‘The rise of extreme volunteering’ by Lindsay Levkoff Lynn.  (For some reason, for me the word extreme always conjures up an image of the sport they call extreme ironing but that may just be an indication of how much I loathe that particular activity; a topic for another posting maybe.)  Lindsay says that extreme volunteering is about regular people going beyond the usual levels of volunteering, and gives some great examples such as the City Year volunteers; 18-25 year olds who dedicate a year, full-time, before university, or work to support head teachers in turning around underprivileged UK schools, and Shared Lives Plus, whereby families ‘adopt’ someone in need, giving them a place to live and making them a part of the family.  I have no doubt that these, and many such similar schemes, truly change people’s lives.

For many, volunteering is simply a way of life.  It’s in their DNA, and represents the more positive side of human nature.  What worries me is Lindsay’s prediction, and in particular her application of the term ‘extreme’ in the context of volunteering.  I am concerned that –

–          any volunteering which is construed as ordinary, or not extreme, may be viewed as a lesser activity.  We seem to be in an age where people feel they must do something out of the ordinary to get noticed and we are in danger of not valuing the mundane without which, society would come unstuck.

–          any cause or need which is construed as ordinary, or not extreme, may be viewed as a lesser cause.  There is a 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.

–          volunteering might be relied on to take the place of state services in times of austerity.  There is nothing wrong in recognising the value of neighbourly assistance, particularly in hard times such as these.  There is a danger, however, in accepting a lesser role for the state in the welfare of our society, and in assuming that volunteering will fill the gaps.

–          the notion of a gap year as a ‘give back’ year detracts from the idea of giving.  I agree that those young people who are privileged enough to take a gap year at all are likely to appreciate the notion of giving back but this may well detract from the act of giving itself.  Of course, the volunteer also benefit from volunteering, but does it have to be promulgated as some sort of reciprocity?  Why not just give?

I first started volunteering at the age of thirteen years, helping my parents, Triss and Bas Driver, at the Cambridge PHAB Club, founded by my amazing godmother, Joyce Mitchell who, at nearly ninety, is still actively involved.  My parents were also involved in running a youth club at the United Reform Church in Victoria Road also in Cambridge;  this at a tender age when they weren’t much older than the club members themselves.  I have a vivid memory of Mum and Dad running the pram race from Cambridge to Ely as a fund-raiser.  This was in the 1960s – remember those Silver Cross prams? – you can easily accommodate a grown man dressed as a baby in one of those!  And they’re still volunteering; although maybe not the pram racing these days.  I’m indebted to them both for passing on that lifelong passion.

I was also lucky enough to take two gap years, before and after my undergraduate degree over thirty years ago. Volunteering featured in both, particularly the second, when I worked as a full-time volunteer at the Cambridge Women’s Refuge.  As an undergraduate I had been involved hospital visiting, working with the Gingerbread Group, supporting lone parents, and with the College Nightline Service, which served, not only students but also the wider community.   As a postgraduate, I had the privilege of being involved in the miners’ strike, not only in the political act of picketing, but also in putting together and distributing food parcels to the miners’ families.  I had the time to do all this because I hadn’t had to work my way through college, unlike so many, who must now do so in order to pay their way.

Students bring a passion and volunteering ethos to our universities.  And higher education institutions should indeed support, encourage, and most of all, recognise and value, what they do.  I’ve been impressed, for example, by the work of UEA’s Stop the Traffik student society, and the incredible commitment of individual students, who are driven by a desire to make a difference.

I’m concerned, however, about the industry that has of late emerged around student volunteering, or ‘employability’ as it is called these days.  I’m not denying that volunteering is good for the CV, and I always encourage young people to make the most of their credentials in order to improve their prospects of employment.  It’s certainly useful to have an addition to the standard CV when setting out your stall.  However, it is absolutely vital that accreditation, and indeed certification in the form of instruments, such as the Higher Education Achievement Report, does not end up commodifying the very act of volunteering.

Lindsay predicts that in 2014 extreme volunteering will become the norm, and that we will live in a better world as a result.  I say, don’t neglect the mundane and value all who want to make a difference.

You can find her prediction here –