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14th August 2023

Volunteers and the State – where does volunteering fit in 21st century Scotland?

Last week, Volunteer Scotland facilitated a Festival of Politics panel event exploring the relationship between volunteering and the state. Our CEO, Alan Stevenson, was joined on the panel by Sara Redmond from the Health and Social Care Alliance and Alan Sherry from the CLD (Community Learning and Development) Standards Council. The discussion was expertly chaired by Jeremy Balfour MSP who dared to ask some of the thornier questions!

The panellists explored the full spectrum of volunteering activity and discussed how volunteers enhance public services in a range of roles. They grappled with the fundamental question of what is volunteering and how is it different to paid work. Volunteering should, at the very least, be a free choice, it should be unpaid, and it should benefit the community. Alan Stevenson spoke of the need to ensure ‘clear blue water’ between volunteering and paid work, but in practice that water can be distinctly murky. This ‘murkiness’ is why Volunteer Scotland have recently relaunched the Volunteer Charter, which sets out 10 principles for appropriate, legitimate, and meaningful volunteering.

The panel acknowledged the impact of the current financial climate, and Sara Redmond expressed the need to be attentive to placing more on the shoulders of volunteers. The panel further reflected on the fact that volunteering is not currently a free choice for everybody due to the many barriers to participation that exist. As such, practices which increase inclusive volunteer participation are a priority.

Alan Sherry highlighted that volunteering is often a steppingstone for people into paid employment or further education, particularly those from marginalised communities, and that there is a need to protect paid roles in public services as a goal to aspire to. He suggested a need for relevant agencies to work together in ensuring that the learning and wellbeing benefits of volunteering are enhanced through access to formal training or accreditation.

There was an insightful question from the audience about the need for volunteers in grassroots organisations to access relevant support and expertise, particularly in governance roles. It was reflected that true community empowerment can only exist with the right support and infrastructure.

Building on the theme of empowerment, there was discussion about how to meaningfully involve people with lived experience in a way which acknowledges the value of their time and experience. Is there a need to reimburse people who share their experiences to improve public services? If so, how can this be done in a way that doesn’t undermine the principles of volunteering?

The culmination of this wide-ranging and fascinating discussion became more philosophical in nature, and perhaps asked more questions than it answered. In a paradoxical reality where the very services needed to respond to austerity are under threat because of austerity, how can volunteering have a sustainable role? What kind of Scotland do we want to be in the 21st Century, and how do we ensure that the state allocates resource to activities which reflect this?

I came out of the panel discussion firm in my belief that volunteering IS a defining element of 21st century Scotland – it is a powerful force for good, a symbol of our collective compassion and is often the bridge between Scottish communities and the state. BUT, in a time where the state is facing unprecedented challenge, it is vital that the principles of volunteering as a positive force for good are continuously debated, defined, and reinforced.

Watch the event in full below

Sarah Latto

Policy Officer