Inclusive volunteering, good for organisations, good for everyone

26 September 2019

Austin Smith, Policy Officer for Scottish Drugs Forum, argues that some organisation’s work would be enhanced by recruiting volunteers from Scotland’s most deprived communities.

SdfThe statistics show that people in Scotland’s most deprived communities are far less likely to be involved in volunteering than those in more prosperous neighbourhoods. Of course, people in these communities - often living in poverty - are carrying out unpaid work - and disproportionately so - often as carers. Kinship care is just one example of unpaid work far more common in deprived communities than elsewhere. 

But why are people in deprived areas less likely to volunteer? I don’t know the answer to that - I would guess that issues around money, transport, experience of paid work and, for some individuals, basic skills, self-esteem and confidence are all part of the answer. 

Whatever the reasons people living in areas of deprivation are less likely to volunteer, it certainly creates an issue for organisations and groups involved in volunteering in Scotland. For some people working in the field, this will be seen as an equalities or a diversity issue - and quite rightly. However, personally, my view is that the central concern is the huge waste of human resource and human potential, and the impact that has on the quality of services delivered by organisations involving volunteers.

Volunteering is all about people making their skills and experience available to organisations and groups. But, as well as their time, people bring their personalities and cultures. This is why many people will tell you they are able to engage more fully as a person in volunteering activities than in their paid work.

So what is lost by the exclusion of people from Scotland’s poorest communities? The obvious answer is the skills and knowledge people have precisely because they live in and amongst poverty. It is the insight into the culture of deprivation and poverty that is a huge asset to many organisations and groups - particularly those whose work focuses on working directly with people in poverty and in areas affected by deprivation. 

For many organisations, if we are not drawing people from those communities, we are depending entirely on people who do not have direct experience of the very issues with which our ‘target audience’ live.  There are ways to address this problem but it would certainly help to have people with lived experience as colleagues.

If I may say, my experience is that outsiders to these communities can have at best simplistic and often patronising attitudes to people in poverty and in deprived communities. This results in poorly designed and poorly delivered services and these are understandably often poorly received by the people they are meant to engage and support.

Equalities and diversity are important but there is a strong ‘business case’ for ensuring people affected by economic inequalities are a focus of volunteer recruitment. This business case would be made more real if public bodies and other funders and grant-givers insisted on diversity in volunteer recruitment.

Our experience at Scottish Drugs Forum has focussed on recruiting volunteers who have experienced problem substance use. Many, though certainly not all, have backgrounds affected by deprivation and poverty. Many volunteers have moved on to participate in our Addiction Worker Training Project which offers paid work experience in the care sector - chiefly in addiction treatment and support services. Nine out of ten trainees move into paid posts in the field. All along this journey, people bring the perspectives and insights of their own experiences to bear on their work. People often talk of ‘fitting in’ and ‘feeling comfortable’ in their roles - often in ways that surprise them. What other stakeholders remark on is the huge contribution their experience and insight bring to organisations and that participants can engage and even inspire people with whom they have a common background.

Perhaps instead of asking why people from areas affected by deprivation are less likely to volunteer we should ask why organisations working with volunteers are failing to attract and recruit them. Do we not recognise them for the huge potential asset that they are? Is our volunteering activity perceived as poorly designed and ineffective? These are tough questions but well worth asking.

The National Inclusion in Volunteering Group coordinated by Volunteer Scotland has produced a series of Top Tips for Inclusion.