Big Society: The Government’s Answer To Big Cuts?

The Government’s vision of Big Society fails to grasp the reality of life argues Shantele from Cheshire, Halton and Warrington Race Equality Centre


Funding Bids

I spend a great deal of time developing bids for funding to keep Cheshire, Halton and Warrington Race Equality Centre and its services going. In this economic climate, we are feeling the pinch and successful bids are getting more scarce What I have noticed is a change in how funders are approaching bids: a few weeks ago we were rejected on what I considered a really good, well thought through bid that I’d have put money on being successful a year ago.

Big Society World

The reasons given? – it was not value for money and they felt we could have utilised volunteers more. My feeling is that those two reasons are seen as one and the same- funders are looking for us to cut costs and one way of doing that is to take on volunteers rather than hiring staff.. To be fair the ‘Big Society’ (government’s answer to the ‘Big Cuts’) vision is pushing the idea that volunteers will resolve the issue of reduced staff numbers. In ‘Big Society World’ everyone has the time and money to volunteer for their favourite cause; for unemployed people it will be their route back to paid employment.

Forgive me if I sound cynical, but I think the government’s vision fails to grasp the reality of life. Now we at the frontline are the ones who are expected to deliver this vision (with less resources I might add).

The Role of Volunteers

We rely on volunteers a lot; I have a great deal of respect and admiration for people who give their time, energy and skills for free. But, therein also lies the problem; they volunteer, they aren’t employees – we cannot lay down the terms of work that we could for a staff member. If a volunteer fails to turn in one week, there is no penalty (and nor should there be), but it is this that makes it inappropriate for volunteers to take over the roles of paid staff. Many volunteers are also seeking paid work, so when they find it, we lose them – it is very difficult to keep volunteers long term, so we are often investing in what is in most cases short term gain. And we do ‘invest’ in volunteers, they are not free – we recruit them, pay expenses, train them and supervise them and that all costs money.

My other issue is that the voluntary sector has changed over the years; we offer more professional services than ever before, often filling the gaps in public service provision. And whilst on the one hand we are being encouraged to develop a more ‘business like’ approach so that we can compete in the commissioning process, the message seems to be that staff are not really that important, that we in the voluntary sector can ‘get by’ on volunteers.

I am not saying for a moment that volunteers are not needed; they are more than ever, but surely it is for us as the sector to say when we feel it appropriate to utilise volunteers and when it isn’t. After all, aren’t we the experts in this field? Don’t we know what works and what doesn’t?

So, funders stating that we could utilise volunteers for more things than we think we can, seems to me to be entirely the wrong approach.


Disclaimer: Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of Voice4Change England.