Discussion Synthesis 2011: Volunteering and the Big Society


Volunteering should be:
   * fun
   * an add on, an enhancement, not a substitute
   * voluntary, not mandatory
   * one aspect of a drive to formulate workable social enterprise models. Ultimately, aiming for a fairer society with wellbeing criteria at its core. Partnership models a possible way forwards opportunity for local people to regain the power to be self determining.
   * a means of working in partnership with the local authority, not picking up the pieces where parks services have been cut.

Report on Volunteering and the Big Society – key issues, controversies, opportunities from 2011

Some key questions:  

Are Friends Groups the perfect example of the Big Society? Is volunteering meant to enhance or substitute for a properly staffed and resourced service? Will current pressures to volunteer lead to more involvement or to resentment? When does volunteering become conscription (eg work-for-dole schemes)? What’s the difference between formal volunteering (registered and supervised) and informal volunteering (collective and ad hoc)? How do we ensure it is fun, that it doesn’t become smothered by bureaucracy and that volunteers become actively involved in our groups?

Points Raised:  What IS appropriate for a Friends Group in terms of input? Have been adding value for years and improving quality of our parks. Lack of funds put them at risk of serious decline. Many Friends Groups now running Festivals, Growing Projects and a strong calendar of events promoting Art in the Park, Love Parks Week, The Big Draw, The Big Lunch etc.
Political Forums are looking at volunteering and green space strategy. Various training organisations for the environment/horticulture. Could they be helped to work better together? Issues currently around different ways of measuring data eg time inputs. Friends Groups do not automatically monitor vols hours. How is travel time to be dealt with?
London Living Wage is now £8.30. Friends’ time input now thought to equate to around £3million. Some disquiet expressed about assigning monetary value to volunteer hours.
What are individuals capable of doing and what are they prepared to do? What is an appropriate expectation on the part of the local authority? Potential concern about threat to council posts if volunteers are perceived as capable substitutes for a paid workforce? Awareness that volunteer status itself is evolving not always given sufficient recognition for valuable, some would say essential input. Concerns that local authorities may deliberately try to shift responsibility to Friends Groups as a cost cutting strategy. 
Important to note that volunteers are motivated by some feeling of personal gain, fun, social opportunities, skills development, being outdoors, making a contribution etc. Concepts such as monetary value and service level agreements are foreign to the world of volunteering up to now. But monetary value is routinely used as a means of securing match funding.
With the recession, almost everyone having to re-evaluate attitudes towards work, income generation, the job for life concept and the different roles we all adopt throughout adulthood including stints as a volunteer. Volunteer status as a result of retirement, health recovery, employment gap, temporary skills development/enhancement opportunity etc.
Parks maintenance requires use of heavy machinery has implications for training and health & safety issues. Well designed, interesting, adequately maintained parks need a high standard of horticultural expertise or at the very least, skilled supervision. Implications for volunteer expertise/training. Huge number of volunteer hours would be required to make up for local authority employees. What is the future for horticulture and its practice in our parks across Britain? Bedding plants being discontinued in many parks.
Disquiet expressed about mandatory work programmes staffed by volunteers in order to qualify for benefits. Concerns about the volunteer movement becoming a strategy for cheap labour and contributing to a de-skilling of the work force.
In Hounslow one Friends group have offered to take over the running of its park in a formal capacity, but the offer has been rejected. Genuine concern about loss of jobs safely under the council umbrella. Currently parks are tendered out to land managers who sub contract for specific services. But the land contractors are there to make a profit for their share holders, not operating from a service to the community ethic. Successful in leasing a caf premises from the council, managing it skilfully, meeting community need and returning the profit to the Friends Group for re-investment in the park. Ditto The Brentford Festival run annually by the Friends group (12,000 attend). Effectively pioneering social enterprise model harnessing volunteer goodwill to positive effect.
Friends of the River Crane Environment have been successful in their cross-Borough liaison and exploring the possibility of a regional river park as part of the All London Green Grid. This has brought them to the attention of the Department of Communities who have been shadowing their personnel to see how a well established Friends Group can operate at first hand.  In Richmond, Friends Groups were asked if they would be willing to take on the management of their own local parks. But not all Friends Groups were willing/able to work alone.
In other localities, also starting to develop more linked up green spaces, in Southwark, for example, resulting in a Five Parks Walk.
Volunteer involvement shaped by personal skills and local need example given of dog walker who also takes responsibility for mending a deer enclosure. Simply takes all the necessary equipment with him!
Point raised about residential populations who do not actually visit their local parks. Bedford Park (Ealing) wanting to develop in such a way that cultural events could be facilitated (by having a walled garden space) bringing a new focus for the local village population. Growing project also in the pipeline. Re-invigorate the area after the loss of the local shop and its transport links.
Strong views expressed about the need for public services to be funded according to need and recognition that many parks had been underfunded for a long time and therefore need to be safeguarded from any cuts. The ideal: full staffing, re-furbishment of all park buildings and Friends Groups operating as part of a partnership with the local authority with increased opportunities for volunteering. But Friends input to be viewed as an enhancement, not a substitute.

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