The fall of the old order: volunteer revolution

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George Thomson has responded to TFN's invitation to critique the use of volunteers at this year's Edinburgh Hogmanay celebrations

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4th December 2017 by TFN Guest 1 Comment

On the surface everything seems fine. The organisers of the Edinburgh Hogmanay event are seeking 300 volunteers to contribute to the spirit of this iconic world-renowned event. They have a well thought-out offer following a successful pilot at the Edinburgh festival, and the care to cover expenses and design a good experience to attract a lot of people to be part of something special.

The volunteering principles are sound too – anyone coming forward will do so with free will, of their own choice and not motivated by money. The old order thinking is pleased with itself, and wants to echo the feel-good effect of many other major events and the magic that volunteers do bring. Who can forget the wonderful Clydesiders at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games?

George Thomson

George Thomson

Then the pitchforks appear! And in the vanguard are another group of young volunteers from Better than Zero, who campaign for better working conditions and against exploitation. They have a very different view of the Hogmanay volunteer offer.

They have their own set of values to make their own judgement, citing zero pay, freezing conditions, job displacement and social justice. This is a bottom-up movement tackling head on the top-down hierarchy which is seen as offering cake to the masses.

I can see both sides of this and think that mediation could find a shared position and understanding, however, this would only paper over the cracks. The old order thinking works to an old paradigm which is task-based, and formalised.

It describes volunteering like surrogate labour and commodity: recruit, retain, apply; opportunity, interview, skills. Volunteer effort saves costs. It's no surprise then that this mindset leads to the charge of job substitution. At its worst it's paternalistic and patronising. I will pick up a pitchfork myself if invited to another Unsung Hero award.

In fact, volunteering has never actually been this surrogate work world. Only 7% of all volunteers in Scotland are in recognised roles, 93% of us are involved because of our associations and relationships, which are trust based. There is an exceptional value base to volunteering – it's our common world that needs to be nourished and built upon.

Our communities are crying out for social interaction and recognise each person's capacity to be part of a mutually beneficial community life. It is here that we build social solidarity and a better world through our voluntary giving of time in a million different ways.

The old order thinking has been collapsing for a time, but the volunteering revolution will not be fought and won by storming the castle on Hogmanay. It's a quiet revolution in the streets, community centres, hairdressers, shops and in everyday life where we cross the street to meet each other and build trust, respect, and belonging.

This is a volunteer revolution without grand standing founded on social interaction, care and community.

George Thomson is chief executive of Volunteer Scotland

22nd December 2017 by Vishal Tyagi

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