This is our chance to create Volunteering for All
4 October 2021
Alan Stevenson says we cannot ignore the relationship between poverty and volunteering.
From the latest figures, 19% of the population (and 24% of children) were living in relative poverty: in real terms this is around a million people in Scotland – 230,000 children, 640,000 working-age adults and 150,000 pensioners. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the pandemic will very likely exacerbate this situation, especially once temporary job assistance through furlough is withdrawn and the £20 Universal Credit increase is removed.
Poverty impacts some groups of our society more than others. For example, of the 23% of people in Scotland with a disability or long-term illness, the poverty rate runs at 31% of this group. Four in 10 of those in receipt of income related benefits are in poverty and children who live in families in receipt of benefit are over three times as likely to live in poverty.
A set of drivers and solutions are laid out in the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan by the Scottish Government. Volunteering is not mentioned to any extent within this report; not a complaint, we acknowledge there are critical, more direct factors at play. However, when we discuss developing volunteering in Scotland and creating ‘volunteering for all’ there are three key reasons why we cannot ignore the relationship between poverty and volunteering.
Three reasons we’re talking about poverty:
First of all, volunteers and voluntary organisations are incredibly important in alleviating the worst symptoms of poverty; for example, through services targeting mental health, employment and even food insecurity. While voluntary organisations are typically involved, during the pandemic the volunteering effort was also driven by neighbours and neighbourhood level organising. The argument about ensuring there’s an appropriate investment around the pandemic recovery (with a disproportionate impact for those in poverty or just above) is wholly sound.
Secondly, regular volunteering offers a profound set of benefits not just for the beneficiaries of this support, but also for the volunteers themselves. This extends far beyond skills development, to providing a sense of meaning or purpose (including a collective purpose); it increases self-respect, self-esteem and social recognition; it challenges stereotypes; and it creates and maintains social contacts which all help to foster enhanced community wellbeing. Furthermore, volunteering bestows other more specific benefits related to an individual’s health and wellbeing including improved mental health such as alleviation of depression; improved physical health through increased activity and exercise; improved life expectancy; and reduced social isolation and loneliness.
Thirdly. Those with the most to gain from volunteering (and I include a larger proportion of those currently in poverty), are also furthest removed from volunteering and its benefits. Interestingly, we’ve found evidence of a ‘participation hurdle’; while only 20% of those in the most deprived areas in Scotland (SIMD Q1) volunteer through an organisation (the average is 26% nationwide) those that do, contribute as much or more hours of their time than anywhere else. The same can be seen amongst other groups, such as those with a disability or long-term illness (poverty affects this group disproportionately). While, poverty and volunteering appear to be intrinsically linked, it also seems possible that we can address these hurdles through working with those most invested in these issues, including support organisations focused on tackling poverty as well as potential volunteers – both those in poverty and those not.
This requires a different approach to action planning.
We’re currently involved with more than 130 stakeholders, including the Scottish Government, in creating Scotland’s Volunteering Action Plan. This isn’t about collecting experts into a room and emerging with a set of ‘perfectly baked’ solutions or projects ready to roll.
We’re looking at volunteering through the lens of system change, through creating and sustaining a learning culture between organisations and across sectors and places. The relationships we build from a position of collective understanding (especially on issues related to poverty) will provide the basis for action.
While we’ve engaged a fraction of all stakeholders in creating the plan (volunteering touches much of society), many more of us will be asked to get involved. To learn, build new relationships, experiment and, we hope, achieve shared outcomes together over the next few years.
Shona Robison, Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, said: “As has been highlighted earlier in this article, the benefits of volunteering are enormous. It is clear that volunteering is key to us achieving our shared ambition of a fairer and more prosperous country with equality of opportunity for all and is an invaluable tool in tackling poverty. Through the creation of the Volunteering Action Plan, I want us to create a society where volunteering is available to all – where opportunity and expectation are not limited by upbringing or social circumstances, and where we all celebrate and honour the contributions we make.
This is our chance to create Volunteering For All, to make it mean more than words and that must include special attention being given to those facing issues related to poverty.
This article was originally submitted to Third Force News by Alan Stevenson, interim CEO of Volunteer Scotland.