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There is a new focus on how voluntary engagement can improve quality of life. Much of this is related to the coalition government’s talk of the Big Society.

This aims to put more power (and responsibility) into the hands of individuals, groups, networks, neighbourhoods and locally-based communities. But in the absence of funding much of this will have to be done on a voluntary basis. Many volunteers are already over-stretched; if this is going to work, we need a new approach to the very idea of ‘volunteering’.

Volunteers needs new skills to match the Big Society vision

Recent figures suggest that over 11 million people formally volunteer by giving time to a local organisation in their community each month. They do this in many ways, ranging from running sports or hobby groups to working with children or the elderly. Volunteers are often seen as people with time on their hands: there to do fairly basic work. While this is only one part of a much bigger picture it has an element of truth. But if people are to engage in making good strategic decisions about planning, budgets, health and social care etc, we will need more skilled volunteers to supplement and work with existing voluntary groups. These people will need to come from organisations and sectors where strategic skills are learned and widely used, but where volunteering using these skills is not common.

We need a new approach to volunteering; we need ways to bring in volunteers from all parts of society; and we need leadership to make it all happen. The London Sustainable Development Commission (LSDC) has already pioneered this new approach.

The London Leaders programme

In 2007, the LSDC opened a new and unique volunteering programme – London Leaders.
This programme recognises that we need a wide range of volunteers with widely differing skills and approaches to tackle the multiplicity of issues that come under the ‘sustainable development’ umbrella.
The idea was simple: to recruit people from all sectors of society who had ideas about how they wanted to deliver change or innovation that related to sustainable development. Each person would join the programme for a year to take their idea forward. They would get support principally in the form of publicity and support from LSDC commissioners.

To date, there are 46 London Leaders past and present, whose projects range from growing your own food to promoting healthy eating; from reducing water waste in the fashion industry to improving sustainability in a business supply chain. The London Leaders themselves have varied widely, from senior managers in large companies to grass roots activists: this has shown how ‘voluntary action’ has many different meanings and many different ways to deliver change.

A new definition of volunteering?

The LSDC has a remit to address a huge work area – sustainable development – and does this in a positive and innovative way in the most diverse city on Earth. But this does not mean the London Leaders programme is a unique process. It could certainly be replicated in any large city.

If the Big Society is to deliver change and improvement on the grand level that is being discussed, then a new approach to volunteering is needed. This is not to replace existing work but to supplement (and ‘supercharge’) existing work, and to make it clear that anyone can choose to step beyond the normal boundaries of their job to experiment and innovate, and to use their expertise on a voluntary basis.

LSDC believe that the London Leaders programme offers such a new approach. We are happy to offer it as an example of work in progress and work that we see as making a difference. London has a long way to go to become a sustainable city and this is only one cog in the machine, but it is a valuable and innovative cog nonetheless.

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Written by Chris Church   
Wednesday, 16 February 2011 00:00
Last Updated on Monday, 18 April 2011 10:24


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