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Can you force people to volunteer? Does this question even make sense?

Can you force people to volunteer? Does this question even make sense?

Firstly, some observations;

  • The coalition government have begun the process of launching a National Citizen Service. This will be a voluntary scheme. The previous Labour government seemed to be proposing a compulsory version.
  • At yesterday’s event to launch the New Economics Foundation’s new pamphlet, a member of the audience quite forcefully argued that charities should never receive government money as charities should be powered by altruism and nothing else.
  • The think tank Policy Exchange have argued that the laws around striking should be changed to make it harder to go on strike. They argue that there should be a higher threshold for turnout in strike ballots, because it is unfair for a small group of activists to declare a strike for a larger group of passive members.
These thoughts were swimming around in my head when I met with someone from the innovative social enterprise Spice. Broadly, they are commissioned by public sector or similar organisations to develop credit systems for engaging people and to create active thriving community and public services. They are not a million miles away from TimeBanking or Windsor Local Authority’s plans to reward volunteers.

Spice came out of the experience of post-industrialisation in Wales. The process of closing down the mines was accompanied by the withering away of social networks which were previously based around work, drink, sport and religion. To an extent the public sector moved in, but it could not rebuild these social networks.

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I wondered out loud whether there was something wrong with what could be seen as commodifying human relationships. He replied, quite rightly I think, that being in the Union or being a member of the Chapel or the Rugby League team was never free, and it was never about altruism. It was about mutualism and reciprocity and it was also about self interest (although perhaps people did not realise that it was, since it was so much part of their culture).

Kevin Harris has blogged about his thoughts on the difference between community action and altruistic volunteering. In many ways I would echo what he says but raise the question, how can you best encourage people to take community action?

Some of those who resist any idea of compulsion have an idea of freedom which is too individualistic; one which imagines that people would be completely free if they were freed from any feelings of reciprocity.

On the other hand many of those who support compulsion in some form seem to assume that the state is the best vehicle for this compulsion. In many cases this is simply untrue. Due to our lack of trust in the state and its actors any perception of compulsion from the state is just as likely to lead to resistance as anything else.

However, there are other forms of compulsion. I remember a friend commenting at the time of the Asian tsunami that he felt guilty that he had not yet given money to the appeal. He felt compelled to do so.

This is perhaps the challenge for those of us who believe that there should be more community action; is it possible to create an atmosphere in which people feel compelled to be more engaged with the problems that we face?


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