There is a wonderful scene in an episode of Yes Prime Minister called The Ministerial Broadcast, where Sir Humphrey and Bernard Wooley are discussing Jim Hacker’s proposal for the reintroduction of National Service. Sir Humphrey demonstrates to Bernard how, by asking two different series of questions, he can get his junior colleague to both agree to and oppose national service.
I was reminded of this recently in a session on influencing, run for members of the European Year of Volunteering 2011 working group, which I co-chair. A clip of this scene from Yes Prime Minister was used to illustrate the importance of changing the underlying narrative to a topic in order that people may be more favourably disposed to it.
That got me thinking about two recent reports on volunteering that have provoked some debate in the sector.
The first was the results of the latest (and last) citizenship survey on levels of volunteering which showed a slight decrease in formal volunteering and a slight increase in informal volunteering, both at levels (1 per cent) that I suspect are well within the statistical margin for error.
The second was the warm welcome given to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) Manual On The Measurement of Volunteer Work, produced in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins University Centre for Civil Society Studies. In short, this document sets out a standard method for use globally to count volunteers and assign a notional wage value to their work (i.e. what volunteer effort would cost if we had to pay people to do it).
I question whether either of these pieces of costly research will make any positive difference to the underlying narrative in society about volunteering. Will they help challenge the stereotypes the public have about volunteers and volunteering? Will they make any contribution to helping organisations engage new generations of volunteers? Will they help awaken sector leaders to the potential of volunteer effort as opposed to their endless pursuit of ever more money?
Sadly, the answer is no. In fact the ILO work may even be counterproductive, as Jayne Cravens recently observed in her excellent blog.
What we need is more work like the recent Pathways Through Participation report that gives us real insight into why people engage, why they stop engaging and what we can do about it. Or more
initiatives like Orange RockCorps which is making volunteering ‘cool’. Or work like the recent report From Fundraising To Resource Raising which challenges the belief that only cash gets things done.
Only then, when a future PM asks if anything has really changed in volunteering, will their Sir Humphrey be able to confidently reply, “Yes Prime Minister”.