You may have noticed a news story last month saying that the Prime Minister has announced the first recipients of the Points of Light awards. Never heard of them? Neither had I.
The awards are a new way for the government to recognise the contribution volunteers make to UK society. They add to the existing Big Society Awards, The Queens Award for Voluntary Service and the honours system, which includes the specific British Empire Medal for people who contribute to their communities.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m all for initiatives that shine a spotlight on volunteers and their immense contribution to our society. Anything that highlights the work of volunteers is a good thing in my book, especially if it demonstrates some of the more significant things volunteers do, rather than the usual stereotypical roles (making the tea, staffing a charity shop) and changes people’s views of who volunteers are. Not everyone who volunteers is 60+ and has been doing it for the last 40+ years.
So, at face value, these new Points of Light awards are a good thing, especially as the first recipients were people who volunteered to help others during last winter’s floods. However, I do have two issues with the new awards.
First, although the first winners were announced with a flurry of publicity, we’ve heard nothing though about how those winners were chosen. What is the selection procedure? How many people will be given this award and how often? Is the reward in the form of publicity, or do the winners actually get something? How can potential recipients be nominated for future rounds?
These may seem like trivial issues, but for the awards to actually mean anything, these questions need answers. The Queens Award for Voluntary Service matters because being selected for and given the award is the result of a rigorous process. If this is just the PM and other officials picking names out of a hat then it carries much less credibility.
Second, the press release announcing the Points of Light awards clearly links them to the US organisation Points of Light. This was established by President George Bush Senior in the 1990s, and with its subsequent acquisition of the HandsOn Network has become the closest thing the States has to what was Volunteering England over here.
My question is why our government, after decimating the volunteering infrastructure in this country, seems to be getting into bed with the volunteering infrastructure in the USA? Is the the first step towards POL opening offices here in the UK? If so, why do the government think POL will be any more effective than what we had here before? Even if that isn’t the plan, why did the government go to POL to set up these awards rather than working with the NCVO, Ivo, CSV or anyone else?
I hope someone somewhere is asking these questions of the government and the PM. The Points of Light awards might be a good thing, but they may also be the tip of a much bigger and more dangerous iceberg if they suggest that the powers that be think importing American ideas and organisations into the UK’s volunteering movement is a solution to a problem no one seems to have defined.