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Mike was taking no chances in his new role as church handyman

Until more space is afforded staff by companies greedy for their time, the idea that we will solve social problems by recruiting volunteers remains elusive.

We subscribe to certain views about social trends and one of these is the slow erosion of community. Yet one survey of volunteering has revealed over twenty million people volunteer every year, putting in ninety million hours of voluntary work a week at an estimated economic value of forty million pounds.


The Church is one of the biggest voluntary organisations in society and there are sound theological foundations to our commitments. Jesus was the supreme volunteer, coming from God of his own volition, giving his life in service of others without financial gain, sacrificing his life that they would be redeemed. This act of grace is the intentional and unconscious motivation of countless people.


June 1-7 marks National Volunteers’ Week. To volunteer often allows us to exercise a different range of gifts to those we employ in a paid job. It provides the volunteer with a real sense of satisfaction in meeting human need, an avenue which might not be so conspicuous in our paid job. For a retired person it may afford them continuity and purpose in life. For all it creates a sense of community.


Yet the experience of volunteering is often costly, with law and custom expecting the same commitments of time, punctuality and competence people face in their paid work. People usually volunteer when they are tired after hard work, wolfing dinner down and dashing out – if they even call home between times. As a leader in the local church I was sometimes in awe of what people would do to support its mission.


Despite the spirit of enterprise at hand, there are misgivings about the role of the corporate world in squeezing the third sector. Sizeable demands are laid on employees through long working hours - or the subtle expectation of them - insecure short-term contracts, global travel and frequent relocation. These conditions of service sap energy, making people understandably less willing to take on outside commitments. This may suit the company but it does not enhance community.


Although some firms take an enlightened approach to the voluntary lives of their employees, many don’t. Public policy has shied away from addressing this problem, perhaps due to the sheer power of the corporate world. Mainstream political parties call for a larger role for charity in meeting social welfare, but this will only be achieved by releasing more of the voluntary capacity which is currently locked up in long working hours and by taking a cool look at the relentless bureaucratisation of the voluntary sector. Larger questions should be asked of the kind of society we wish to live in. The answers must be bolder still.



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© 2017 Simon Burton-Jones All Rights Reserved