By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
The new political buzzword is volunteering. Its latest evangelists Chancellor Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron say community work gives disadvantaged young people the leg-up they need. But is unwaged work by its nature something for the privileged?
When Prince Harry spent part of his gap year working in poverty-stricken Lesotho, he helped build foundations for a new health clinic, completed a road bridge and dug trenches for crops.
Not only was this a fantastic experience for a 20-year-old, it was a great advert for volunteering - good for the CV, good for the soul and good for the village.
In a tradition more commonly encouraged at public schools, others have beaten a similar path to the developing world to help out, as if continuing a strong sense of duty, a "noblesse oblige", long associated with the upper class.
Many more people choose something worthy closer to home. And although putting in the unpaid hours at a local care home may not have the African scenery as enticement, it does have similar career benefits and the added satisfaction of helping the community where you live.
But the prospect of unwaged employment might not be so appealing if you're a cash-strapped school leaver who wants to help mum put food on the table. And for young people facing the financial burden of student loans, the need to earn during a gap year is all the more urgent.
Gordon Brown tried to address this problem in his pre-Budget report when he promised up to £100m for "volunteering in Britain and abroad for young people who could not otherwise afford this".
The cash, from dormant bank accounts, will help to implement the proposals of the Russell Commission, set up in 2004 to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to volunteer, in the hope it would provide a way into further education and employment.
The £100m, £50m of which is matched pound for pound by businesses, will fund new volunteering opportunities and raise awareness of it in deprived communities. And in recognition of the financial difficulties, a £60 weekly "wage" will cover living expenses.
The Tories are banging a similar drum. New leader David Cameron wants a national school leaver programme for people to spend three or four months doing "something that has public service at its heart". Although there is compulsion here, the plan enshrines the voluntary sector ethic of making a difference.
Volunteers contributed 1.9bn hours in 2003 (equivalent of one million full-time workers).
Volunteering is worth £22.6bn a year to UK economy
72% of voluntary and community organisations employ no paid staff
Source: Home Office Citizenship Survey/VSNTO 2003
Volunteering is an industry estimated to be worth £22.6bn a year to the UK economy and encompassing half the population. For example, voluntary help at GP surgeries has been calculated to reduce hospital appointments by a third.
There are gaps in the volunteering industry - prisons and hospitals don't have the same attraction as tree-planting, for example. But momentum has been building this year with the government campaign Year of the Volunteer, which has received more than a billion minutes in volunteer pledges on its website.
Yet the efforts by politicians to widen the appeal of giving something back suggests many people are not reaping the benefits of taking part.
That's because it's more accessible to the affluent, says Caroline Diehl, chief executive of Media Trust, which is one of the Year of the Volunteer partners.
"It's easier for the middle class because there's probably a parental expectation, it's easier because there may be parental support, it's easier because of the networking, the access and the knowledge will be there," she says.
"It's not about a lack of interest among disadvantaged young people, it's more a lack of knowledge and financial resources. In communicating volunteering opportunities we haven't really reached out to those young people."
But it's no longer a middle-class ghetto and there are organisations doing a great job in getting disadvantaged youngsters involved, she says. And volunteering does not have to be full-time, so it can accommodate paid work.
WRVS is a national charity that helps people who feel isolated or lonely. It has made great strides in cities like Sheffield and Birmingham to recruit volunteers from the unemployed or from black and ethnic minorities, sometimes with help from a diversity officer with good contacts in the community.
"The key to living a fulfilled life, whatever background, is to widen your horizons, whether you've gone to Eton and you suddenly realise there's another side of life, or you've been brought up in a poor estate in Hackney," says Ms Diehl.
"It's also about being given the opportunity to show you can make a difference. So many young people grow up thinking they have nothing to offer."
Change for good
Anthony Reid's story would have Messrs Brown and Cameron purring in delight. The 19-year-old says volunteering saved him from a life of waywardness on the streets of Derby.
He completed 200 hours of voluntary football coaching intermittently over six months, and now he's in part-time paid work running a football course for disadvantaged youngsters.
"I would probably have been doing nothing, getting up to no good, if it wasn't for the Millennium Volunteers," he says.
"The truth is I couldn't see myself volunteering and I would have said no but I didn't have any other work and at the time I wasn't interested in anything else but sport. It's got me a lot further than I expected."
But for others, the prospect of no wages does put them off. Mustafa Field, who runs the SAM youth club in north London for people from disadvantaged and refugee communities, says volunteering schemes like the Scarman Trust and Millennium Volunteers have been hugely beneficial to some people at his club - but there are barriers.
"It can be difficult to sell, especially to people from disadvantaged communities," he says. "They need part-time jobs and struggle to find them so they need incentives like sponsorship or money towards education.
"The families don't understand why they're doing it and can't see the benefit so they're not with them. We have problems with some families that wouldn't encourage their kids to get involved in volunteering."
And as a Muslim, he says, he recognises the need to get more female Muslims participating because the volunteer groups are dominated by men and they are the ones who take the initiative.
"We're trying to change that but it's very slow. They need to have incentives and there needs to be education from families."
I was lucky enough to spend 3 months in Namibia with the charity Raleigh International in 2002, just after I left university. I do not come from a rich family and my parents made it clear from the outset that I could not rely on them to fund my volunteering. The beauty of an organisation like Raleigh is that I was able to do some fundraising for my place. Although it was a challenge, the fundraising made my experience all the more rewarding because I'd put such a lot of effort into getting to go away. I can't recommend this sort of programme highly enough to ALL young people.
John, London, UK
Volunteering is NOT just for the privileged! In my twenties I had no qualifications and I was on the dole but I worked as a volunteer in a MIND charity shop, and OXFAM, the health charities and many others are always looking for good staff for their shops.
The thing is, it's not as glamorous working in a shop to raise funds as going to an exotic part of the world and doing something colourful like digging wells. But if you're solely in it for the glamour and the foreign locations, and not to give something back to the world, then it's a pretty empty gesture anyway isn't it?
Chandra, London, England
I agree there are many ways to volunteer. I have done voluntary work at hospitals and with children in the city and the homeless. However, I would love the opportunity to help out in Africa or Asia, I have looked into this and especially after the tsunami, but it DOES cost too much. If i was to arrange the 3 month volunteer programme in Africa i have looked into, I would need about £2-3k,(i have already paid for a TEFL course myself) also, having to make sure my rent and bills are paid whilst i'm away, so i don't loose my flat. I think it's a real shame that so many people are left with this dilema.
The opportunity cost of non-wage volunteering (which usually entails a large initial outlay for flights, accommodation and living costs) is the substantial foregone earnings. For many school-leavers that's too large a price if they're going to be self-financing beyond this point: it's not about the wealth of the family, it's about the support given by the family. An affluent family will not neccessarily stump up the cash for a child's university education. No matter how good a six month stint in Africa looks on a CV, young adults still have to eat and have a roof over their heads.
My son wanted to volunteer abroad, he is a football coach already with development projects in Lambeth. What stopped him was the fact that a gap year abroad would cost him £1200-2500 just for the expenses (flight and support). He is working and trying to save for university next year so raising the required amount would have been extremely difficult - he has no large family or friend structure to offer support.
I think there should be a scheme where those from this kind of background are given funding/sponsorship. There is nothing better for a child than to travel and experience life with people who have little in the material sense, especially youths in the west who put too much value on 'things'.
Sheila Hare, London
Volunteering can be done at all levels, it's not just taking 6 months out to go to Africa. I work full time, look after my home and have an active social life, but I still find time to volunteer. I deliver meals on wheels at the weekends, it takes an hour and a half each day and provides so many with a vital link to the outside world. There is no reason for not volunteering, a few hours a month can make a big difference to small charities.
I think it's a real shame that organisations such as the VSO will only take on graduates and yes volunteering is for only the privileged. The point is you don't need a degree to dig a ditch or mend a fence. There are so many underprivileged youth in the UK that would get so much from a voluntary stint in Africa & the Africans would also gain from it. But anything that would seem to indicate common sense is always ignored for more expensive, less effective solutions - it's a shame, a real shame.
Nick, Brighton, UK
I think volunteering is a great thing to do regardless of your background. There's a sense of achievement in doing something for others. In Mexico students cannot graduate from university unless they have done at least 100 hours of volunteering and do get the relevant support from their universities, especially the underpriviledged who can volunteer within the university to "work off" their fees. Maybe we should enforce this in our own education system so that we can improve our society.
The backgrounds of the Guiders (who are volunteers, some parents still think we aren't) who run the UK's Rainbow, Brownie, Guide & Ranger units is wide and varied; and they in turn give young girls from wide and varied backgrounds the opportunity to gain life skills as well as trying many new activities. It is a great joy to see how much a girl has gained when she leaves your section, from the girl she was when she joined. I'm sure that all the hours volunteered by Guiders and Young Leaders (14-18yr old trainees) adds up to a considerable amount over the year; and that they have touched the lives of many women in the UK today.