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.

3 Responses to “Volunteering: are we learning from the past?”

  1. Chris Reed

    An interesting and thoughtful piece Rob, but you knew I’d say that given we met earlier in the week at NCVO’s ‘Change! What change? Does volunteering in 2015 look so different to what it did in 2008?’ event! I agree, as a former member of the Scrutiny Committee for the Volunteering Hub (created under the ChangeUp regime) I remember only too well our discussions about the need for local infrastructure to adapt and change. In the case of Volunteer Centre’s we focused particularly on their need to be about more than just brokerage. The same is true today and this is echoed in NCVO’s new Volunteer Centre Quality Accreditation framework, which continues to strive to put local volunteering infrastructure at the forefront of strategic volunteer development in local communities, but have people listened, have oganisations changed? Clearly not if the output of the event earlier this week is anything to go by! VC’s and infrastructure were criticised for moving too far into the territory of front line volunteer involving organisations, delivering more and more direct services instead of providing the holistic infrastructure support that organisations crave. Is this a conscious decision or a knee-jerk reaction necessitated by a failure to learn from the past and adapt and change when the going was, if not good, a lot better than it is now!

  2. Elizabeth Balgobin

    The Commission did consider the richness of material developed in the past and still being developed. I accept your thoughts that it is a failing we did not find a way of conveying that. I feel we gave a nod to missed opportunities but the report was written to look to what is currently happening and move us all forward.

    The history of sector infrastructure support is always in my mind when considering what to do next. This is partly because I was thrust into ChangeUp and Capacity Builders when I took on LVSC and partly because I looked back at 100 years of infrastructure support from LVSC to prepare for the centenary.

    What I have learned is that some things have to be learned again, individually, to be meaningful to the new generation tackling the issues – much like capacity and capability building where we will always have to run the same core courses. With each re-learning a new element sticks and becomes the accepted practice.

    It doesn’t help that with each new government, funder programme or other opportunity they need to learn afresh too.

    If the report can affect the current and near-future generation of local infrastructure then we will have done a fair job.

    • Rob Jackson

      Helpful comments Elizabeth, thank you. However, I would say that the current generation of infrastructure is the very same generation as that which went through ChangeUp etc.. It was only 10 years ago after all. Like you and the Commission I hope (with due consideration of the lessons on the past) that the future is a better place for LIOs and the communities they serve.


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