Volunteering: are we learning from the past?

It may be me, but I get the distinct feeling that looking backwards seems to be more and more unacceptable. In our world, which moves at ever-increasing speed, and where the pace of change becomes more and more relentless, time to look back, reflect and learn seems to become increasingly rare. Instead we move from initiative to initiative, jumping on trends and bandwagons in an ongoing quest for progress, without really thinking about how we got here.

I was thinking about this recently as I read the report from the Independent Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure, Change For Good. It is a thoughtful document that clearly sets out the importance of local infrastructure support for a thriving voluntary and community sector. I hope its recommendations are heeded and implemented.

Yet, much of the report came with a sense of déjà vu.

Back in 2004 the newly formed Volunteering England launched a strategy for the future of local volunteering infrastructure called Building on Success. It set out the challenges infrastructure faced in the 21st century and, following extensive consultation with volunteer centres, councils for voluntary service and others, set out plans for modernising and strengthening local infrastructure. It was quickly adopted by the government of the day as the route map for the volunteering element of its now-defunct ChangeUp programme.

Building on Success quickly met with criticism from interested parties who felt threatened by the strategic direction being suggested. Maybe people didn’t want to change when funding was plentiful (at least by today’s standards), even if it meant not delivering better services for local groups. Whatever the reasons, some of the bodies and individuals who now endorse the Change For Good report spent considerable effort trying to derail the progress Building on Success sought to make.

So we find ourselves in 2015 with a new strategy. Many of the old arguments for change are the same as they were eleven years ago. Many of the recommendations are similar to those made in 2004. The context has changed, however, not least because there is a lot less money available to turn these aspirations into reality. Furthermore, the austerity agenda has resulted in local infrastructure being considerably weaker than it was ten years ago.

The aspirations of the Independent Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure are correct, and deserve all our attention. We need to turn their vision into reality. Key to that success will be learning from the past, and tapping into the huge body of knowledge available from previous attempts like Building on Success in order to increase the likelihood of success.

If I have a criticism of Change For Good, it is that there is little or no acknowledgement in the report that any of that rich learning material exists; no acknowledgement of the missed opportunities of yesterday; and no willingness to say “we got it wrong before and we’ve learnt from that, so that we will get it right this time”.

Local infrastructure matters. It is key to supporting and enabling a thriving local voluntary and community sector and ensuring that volunteering has a real impact. As we embark on a new journey that strives to realise a better future for local infrastructure of all kinds, let’s hope the lessons of the past are learnt. I don’t want to be writing this blog again in ten years time.