Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Decline in informal volunteering: time for a network solution? The latest topic reports from the 2007-2008 citizenship survey have been published, one on race, religion and equalities, and this one on volunteering which shows a 2% overall drop in regular informal volunteering and a 5% decrease among young people. Informal volunteering covers things like giving advice, transporting or escorting someone, keeping in touch with someone, doing shopping, collecting pension, writing letters, filling in forms and so on. Back in October we had the headlines for the first quarter of 2009 which revealed an overall 5% decline among adults volunteering informally 'at least once in the 12 months prior to interview.' I note that the latest release is from pre-recession data. As I wrote in October, I fear this 5% statistic is a tiny marker of a major social problem. I wonder how policy is going to respond? Comparable decline in formal volunteering might bring specific investment through the volunteering agencies: but who assumes responsibility for promoting informal volunteering? Whose desk does this problem land on? The general erosion of informal interaction at neighbourhood level has worrying implications, because it’s the invisible foundation of many other social benefits we ought to be able to take for granted. We co-produce safety in our own neighbourhoods just as we co-produce our own health and the socialisation of our children. It would be nice to think we also co-provide the dignified ageing of our elders. We can't do that if fewer and fewer people are informally helping each other out. In some ways perhaps it's as well if there isn't a policy in-tray for this issue, because policy makers tend to reach for their favourite organisations and in my view it's not an issue for organisations but for network-based initiatives. Someone said to me the other day that there is a local authority that seems to think Fix My Street is theirs in some sense: it's so successful that they don't realise it's not their organisation's product - a result of hierarchical organisational decision-making, which is the only form of behaviour they understand. How do we come up with a Fix My Street type solution to the decline in informal support? One answer might be Talk About Local, which is promoting local social blogging. Since it's not an explicit purpose of the project, it might not be fair to measure the impact on informal volunteering over time in areas where Talk About Local has generated activity, but it would be interesting.

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