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 –




8 thoughts on “Why ‘extreme’ volunteering is too extreme

  1. These are very insightful comments. You might be interested to read @AlexSwallow’s thoughts in relation to young people’s involvement in the charitable sector, which also considers where the line should be between volunteering and professional involvement, and how this relates to inclusion issues as well as succession planning, albeit at a societal level. Surely if we turn young people’s voluntary energy and enthusiasm into some sort of commodity, then we risk harming the very social glue that holds us together?

    1. Thank you for your feedback and for the suggestion. Pleased to discover @AlexSwallow’s thoughts.

  2. Good morning, Julie.

    Thank so much for your thoughtful post and the reminder that all volunteers should be celebrated! I particularly agree with your statement that, “For many, volunteering is simply a way of life. It’s in their DNA, and represents the more positive side of human nature.”

    When I wrote the piece on “extreme volunteering” I was trying to highlight some of the more time intensive (or time compressed) forms of volunteering that I have seen lately. In no way do I think that “extreme” volunteering is more important or valuable – it is just a different option that volunteers may choose to take up at various points in their life (potentially when their other demands, such as raising a family or working , are more manageable).

    My interest in the idea comes from the US, where we have seen “extreme volunteering” popularized since the creation of AmeriCorps in 1993. Due to the intense nature of a “year or service,” AmeriCorps has largely been taken up by young people and retirees. Amazingly, since its creation, AmeriCorps alone has been responsible for over 1 BILLION hours of volunteering!

    That said, participation in any “extreme volunteering” is just part of a life-cycle of volunteering – that ebbs and flows and changes throughout one’s lifetime. So, as you say, let’s celebrate volunteers of all sorts!!

    P.S. – I’d never heard of extreme ironing until I read your post. Given that I try to avoid all ironing, I think this is NOT a sport that I will soon take up.

    1. Thankyou. I love your notion of a life-cycle of volunteering. I’ve never heard of AmeriCorps. It must be a huge operation!

  3. Its interesting that you base comments and practice around young people. I am with an organisation of Community champions,, many of whom are over 60 and retired like myself, we spend many weeks if not months supporting residents within the borough with many forms of support. literacy, numeracy, welfare reform. mental health issues and so on, recently I started a research program through ARVAC and in doing so brought me into conflict with many issues, so much so, I had to step back and evaluate my participation in the voluntary sector, I think J.E Bunford sums it up nicely when he writes “voluntary organisations have lost sight of their original purposes and functions, and apart from not distributing their profits or surpluses as dividends, they are indistinguishable from private sector companies” .In my role I found conflict in processing some duties, in helping someone I was in fact supporting the process of sanctions against them through the rules of welfare reform. Something my values and morals would not allow me to do. How do we bring back the true value of volunteering in the community, without someone trying to turn it into a business?

    1. Thankyou for your comments, Keith. I guess I tend to refer to young people because I currently work in higher education and I’m aware that a lot of students are involved with volunteering. I appreciate, however, that people of all ages and from all walks of life volunteer. I’m reminded of that when I recall working for the charity, Victim Support a number of years ago; an organisation where the service is ‘delivered’ by volunteers. Your reflection on the challenges that you face as a volunteer in the context of the current welfare reforms is particularly interesting. Perhaps the climate of the reforms and their associated sanctions threatens the moral integrity that motivates people to volunteer; perhaps they choose to volunteer as a way of helping to combat the impact of the reforms on the most vulnerable in society – their moral integrity is not threatened but awakened. It would be interesting to explore the relationship between moral integrity and the ‘political’ climate in the context of volunteering; what conditions are most conducive for volunteering to thrive?

      1. Thank for your comments which are duly appreciated, it is without doubt that ones moral integrity is sorely questioned. I often find it difficult to cope with my own personal feelings, when someone is affected by rules and regulations, particularly when that individual is personally unable to grasp or understand the situation.
        Consequently I can go with the flow, and accept what I am doing is morally wrong, but achieves an end purpose. Which then brings into question, ones own beliefs, values and conscience?
        Indeed It would be interesting to explore the relationship between moral integrity and the ‘political’ climate in the context of volunteering; what conditions are most conducive for volunteering to thrive? Many thanks

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