Last week I attended 2 events with a focus on voluntary social action which is very much on national and local government agenda given the current climate of austerity and reductions in public funding for public services. At local and national government level there is an increasing focus on social action and volunteering, in that it may provide an alternative mechanism for delivery of public services.
However, in exploring the landscape of 'volunteering' in the North East we need to recognise that a high percentage of those who do voluntary work within their local community don't see themselves as volunteers. They just do what they do to help out, and if you asked them if they were a volunteer they would probably say no. Which is perhaps why the North East consistently has some of the lowest levels of formal volunteering in the country. These 'volunteers' are often part of smaller community groups and community centres within some of our most deprived communities, providing grassroots support to local communities.
At the Growing the Civic Core event we heard of positive examples such as Edbert’s House community project in Gateshead. Many individuals with low confidence, self-esteem and no formal qualifications had benefited from the project and are now 'volunteering', in so much as they were informally supporting their peers attending the project.
Engaging and supporting these vulnerable people and the local communities they are routed is essential in tackling the widening inequalities gap we are experiencing in the North East. Community organisations like Edbert’s House are a vital mechanism to achieving that. These organisations are also experiencing increased demand due to the increasing numbers of people experiencing poverty, debt, mental ill health, due to the impact of welfare reform, fragile economic climate, unemployment, zero hours contracts etc.
In 'growing the civic core' we need to support these grass roots and neighbourhood community organisations and enable them to provide support to those most in need and build local social capital. Community organisations are experiencing a perfect storm with increased demand and reductions in public sector funding. In addition the infrastructure network of support organisations that support them has been weakened significantly by cuts to the public sector purse.
So my message to Government at national and local level is simple, in order to 'harness social action' you need to provide funding for the infrastructure support around it.
Government also needs to recognise that community organisations are not simply a source of volunteers to take on public services and assets, but that they provide essential holistic and person-centred support to some of the most vulnerable people potentially saving 'the system' a significant cost in terms of care an support.