In the news in the UK today is a report produced by the Government’s Commission on the Future of Volunteering. The Government, of course, cares about such things because it is easier to persuade people to provide services voluntarily than to tax them and use the money to pay for those services. But British attitudes to volunteering have tended to be colored by the same lens through which we view charities: that is, that it must be “good work”. Ask most British people and I suspect they’d tell you that volunteering to help run a science fiction convention is no more socially useful than watching television.
It was rather refreshing, therefore, to see the Commission’s report define volunteering in a very open-ended way:
an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives
That clearly includes helping run conventions. Also much of what the report says about volunteering is very relevant because, after all, the things the encourage people to give their time for free are pretty much the same regardless of what they give their time to do.
As is perhaps inevitable with Government inquiries, the report spends a lot of time looking at differences between social groups. Interestingly it found that, as a percentage of the population, volunteering was most popular amongst black people of African descent, with black people of Caribbean descent coming third behind whites (though statistically I suspect that all three groups were effectively tied). The Commission also looked at differences by age. In the US I’m often hearing it said that young people don’t volunteer any more; that they won’t do anything unless they get paid for it. Yet the British inquiry found that volunteering was most common amongst the 16-19 age group, with 63% of young adults engaged in some sort of volunteer activity. The Commission heard the same stories about young people not volunteering in Britain, but they commented:
The story of young people volunteering also underlines that there is no one size fits all solution. It only takes a moment of observing or talking to young people to realise how many young people conduct their entire lives through text messaging, mobile phones, emails and social networking websites such as Facebook. Older people may also use these media of communication, but probably not as extensively or as comfortably. So we have to tailor methods of communication to what young people like to use. Any self-respecting young person can detect false attempts by older generations to appear cool, so that is not what it is about. What is required is simply to capitalise on communications that young people are comfortable with, and to remove unnecessary barriers about how the world of volunteering may otherwise be perceived by some of the potentially most active and enthusiastic volunteers.
Maybe those young volunteers are out there after all. (And maybe they are working on Anime conventions.)
The saddest part of the report is where it notes that one of the biggest obstacles to volunteering is the level of red tape that now surrounds it. Con suites of the type common in American conventions are pretty much impossible in the UK because of the health and safety regulations to which they are subject. Hotels won’t put themselves at risk by allowing cons to serve food on their premises. And even when you can serve food, the people doing it are at risk of inspection, and potentially prosecution. For years my mum has helped with the catering at the local stamp exhibition (my dad having been a big noise in the club), but now she’s thinking of giving up because of the level of regulation involved. And it is going to get worse. Volunteer-run organizations in the UK are increasingly being required to run background checks on people who work for them to make sure that those people do not have a criminal record, are not illegal immigrants and so on.
Still, at least the report makes a lot of sense. Whether anyone in Government actually reads it and understand what it says is another matter. If you want to take a look you can fine the whole thing here (PDF).