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Doing one's duty: Why people volunteer in a deprived community

In recent years the government has been pushing volunteering as a way of reconnecting people with the labour market. However, in a recent study published today and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, researchers argue that this understanding is too narrow. Most people volunteer to make a difference in the community rather than for career development.

While many volunteers may describe what they do as work, there are some key distinctions. Not least the fact that many volunteers are beyond the labour market - for reasons of age, disability or care responsibilities. Policy focused on volunteering as training for the labour market risks excluding and discouraging those who can't work.

The study found that volunteering plays a valuable role in developing social capital within communities. Volunteering enhances the levels of active citizenship and community spirit in an area and helps people build up a sense of belonging to a place.

On a personal level volunteering also develops an individual's self-confidence and provides a structure for their lives - getting them out of the house and interacting within the community. While being driven by different motivations, volunteering provides the sense of meaning and identity that many people find in a satisfying job.

The study was carried out by Professor Irene Hardill from Nottingham Trent University and Dr Susan Baines from Newcastle University. They employed an innovative and detailed methodology to spend extended periods of time interviewing and working alongside four different groups of volunteers and programme organisers in one of the most deprived areas of the English Midlands.

The researchers identified four main motivations for volunteering:

1. Mutual aid - people volunteered to help those within their own community. They want to put something back;

2. Philanthropy - people from outside the community volunteered out of a sense of altruism. They felt fortunate and wanted to make a difference;

3. 'Getting by' - people volunteered in reaction to a personal need or as a result of an individual life event like retirement or bereavement. This is volunteering as a form of self-help;

4. 'Getting on' - people who volunteer as a way of developing new skills and experiences that are valued in the labour market. This is volunteering to get a job or for career development.

In successive government policy initiatives like the New Deal and Sure Start New Labour have been steadily pushing volunteering as a way of 'getting on' in the labour market. The government believes that volunteering offers opportunities to develop skills and credentials, and to foster a work ethic.

However, this study found that this type of motivation was the least common amongst those they interviewed and worked with. Instead, most volunteers want to make a difference out of an ethic of care - expressed as mutual aid or philanthropy. Fewer people volunteer for career development than the government might expect.

Annika Howard | EurekAlert!
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