Quite rightly, we are often called upon to open up our organisations to these under-represented groups. We are challenged to broaden the diversity of our volunteer teams and to tackle any practical barriers to the engagement of a wide pool of volunteers. This could include paying expenses so that people aren’t financially disadvantaged through giving their time, or making adaptations to premises or ways of working to remove physical barriers to people getting involved.
Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with this at all. Diversity is good. We should strive for it in our volunteer teams. But I worry that, by doing so, we may be inadvertently disregarding the great volunteer work people in these under-represented groups already do.
Take disabled people as an example. They are generally under-represented in formal, “mainstream” volunteering. The associated assumption made all too often is that disabled people therefore do not volunteer. This is wrong. They do. A lot. They are involved in advocacy, self-help support networks, campaigns for disability rights and lots more. What they do flies under the radar of many people because it doesn’t sit comfortably with the (for want of a better phrase) establishment’s neat definitions of volunteering.
Consider another example. The Labour government of the early noughties had a goal of getting one million more people to volunteer. That goal could have been met when roughly that number of people marched through London in 2003 to protest (as volunteers) against the imminent invasion of Iraq. But that wasn’t the kind of volunteering that the government wanted to see, so it didn’t get counted.
To me, this kind of discrimination is far more subtle, far more common and far more insidious than not providing ramps into a building or only making opportunities available at times that suit certain types of people.
Often without realising it we effectively say to these so called under-represented groups, “what you already do isn’t valid so come and do what we want you to do instead”.
So yes, let’s see what we can do to remove the very real barriers to diverse involvement of volunteers in our organisations. But let’s also take a moment to reflect and see if there are less obvious barriers created by our personal and/or organisational beliefs about volunteering. They are perhaps the barriers we need to challenge first