Promoting civic duty by selling volunteering as a way to boost job prospects is fine - just don't call it volunteering, argues Frank Furedi.
We inhabit a world of political apathy and social and civic disengagement. Universities, once a hotbed of political debate and radical idealism, are dominated by an ethos that seeks to motivate students by appealing to their sense of opportunism and pragmatism.
Attempts to confront the very real problem of civic disengagement often turn into desperate efforts to invent quick-fix administrative solutions to what is a fundamental cultural process of social and moral disenchantment. Initiatives oriented towards inculcating the ethos of public duty and citizenship are always likely to gain a standing ovation. So are policies that are designed to make it easier for people to participate, vote or act virtuously.
Among policy-makers, volunteering has become something of a "big idea" for getting the public to re-engage with society. In January 1999, the government launched its Active Community initiative to facilitate people's involvement in their communities and to encourage volunteering. In October 2000, it launched a major public-relations campaign to promote its Millennium Volunteers Programme. And in January 2001, chancellor Gordon Brown called for an army of volunteers to take over many of the public services hitherto run by the old welfare state.
Like the desperate call to introduce internet voting, policies designed to promote volunteering aim to bypass the problem of social disengagement in two ways. First, the meaning of volunteering is invariably degraded so that it becomes disassociated from the act of making a real commitment. Second, policy aims to weaken the significance of altruism by emphasising how the act of volunteering benefits the volunteer.
Promotional material used to launch the Millennium Volunteers Programme emphasised how a growing number of young people regard volunteering as a "cool" thing to do. The value of having a volunteering experience on the CV in a highly competitive labour market was also stressed. There is little doubt that the project of transforming the cultural definition of volunteering into a career-enhancing project has had some success.
Along with colleagues, students sometimes ask me to suggest what they should volunteer for. When I ask them what they feel passionate about, I usually get a look of incomprehension. "You don't understand," one student replied, before adding: "What I want to know is what kind of volunteering would look best on my CV."
Of course, there are thousands of people whose volunteerism is inspired by the impulse of civic responsibility and the desire to improve community life. But will their cause be served by the policy-driven project of instrumental volunteering? It is always difficult to separate the motives of altruism and self-interest. My fear is that the policy drift may destabilise the delicate balance between these two impulses and denude volunteering of any real moral content. At least the Institute for Public Policy Research's recent report, Any Volunteers for the Good Society? , directly addresses the question of what meanings we should attach to the act of volunteering.
It is of considerable interest to the higher education sector because, among other initiatives, it recommends the introduction of a US-style work-study scheme to widen access to universities by providing financial aid to students who work as volunteers. It also raises the idea of an "experience year" programme, which would offer financial support to students in further and higher education who spend a gap year undertaking community service. But the most useful aspect of this report is that it makes explicit all the assumptions that underpin the idea of instrumental volunteering.
"Active involvement in community and civil life brings many benefits to the people who get involved," home secretary David Blunkett argues in his foreword to the report, and this point is embraced by most of the contributors.
To promote the ideal of instrumental volunteering, many of the contributors advocate rejecting traditional ideals of volunteering. Terms such as "anachronistic" and "traditional" are used to disparage volunteering that is driven by the impulse to do good for others. The ideals of selfless volunteering are dismissed as a luxury that only the rich can afford.
Instead of the traditional approach, contributors opt for a more "inclusive" orientation that allows the benefits of volunteering to be enjoyed by people on low incomes. The turn towards a more "inclusive" approach to volunteering is based on the patronising assumption that, unlike the great and the good, working-class people need economic incentives to act virtuously. It overlooks the fact that, historically, people suffering deprivation have been more than ready to sacrifice their time to support causes in which they believed. What drove the unpaid union organiser or the official of a cooperative society were strong convictions and a sense of civic virtue.
It should be evident that the so-called traditional approach was far more inclusive than contemporary schemes that bribe people to pretend to volunteer.
On closer inspection, what is termed an inclusive approach is seen to be a demand that the institution of volunteering harness the power of self-interest. This idea is most forcefully argued in a contribution by Matthew Thompson. "With the ascendance of the idea of the Self as the chief motivator of personal activity permeating society and the media, so the perception of involvement in 'selfless activity' has become irrelevant to many people," Thompson argues. His call to recognise the "needs" of the volunteer turns into a form of therapy, which is also supported by economic incentives. Of course, the culture of self-interest is a reality that shapes our everyday lives. But to treat self-interest as the foundation for civic renewal can only distract energy from the task of developing a relevant ethos of civic responsibility.
Many of the ideas proposed in the IPPR report, such as work-study and the experience year programme, have considerable merit in their own right. But they have little to do with volunteering or with the process of civic renewal.
Maybe we should save the word volunteering until a day when there is a more supportive cultural environment for the exercise of civic responsibility. Can anyone think of a new word for the therapeutic ideal of "doing my bit for myself"?
Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent at Canterbury.