Volunteering won’t fix Croydon

By - Tuesday 5th April, 2016

Sean Creighton questions a fellow contributor’s recent assertion that volunteering is a panacea for our town

Clem Attlee at the Evatt Dominion Conference in 1946.
Photo by Chifley Research Centre, used under Creative Commons licence.

Volunteering and active citizenship are key features of the vision for improving Croydon advocated by the Opportunity and Fairness Commission in its recent report. And, in his own way, this is also what Jonny Rose is advocating in this recent Croydon Citizen article.

Volunteerism has been a feature of charity, community, faith, and mutual and voluntary organisations for over 200 years in Britain.One of the aims of the settlement movement founded by Anglican Christians in the 1880s was to immerse Oxford students in living and working alongside the poor and the working class in the hope that it would influence their outlooks when they became politicians and civil servants. Clem Atlee, the Labour Prime Minister from 1945 to ’51, is perhaps one of the finest examples of someone who benefited from his involvement in the settlement movement. The aim to support and foster collective action and build people’s confidence still motivates the work of the Katherine Low Settlement in Battersea High Street.

Volunteering can alleviate problems, but it won’t solve them

But while volunteering and active citizenship can have powerful results in changing individual and family lives, we need to be aware that the causes of the problems that bring people together are not solved; they are simply alleviated. Why is this?

Well… what are the problems in your neighbourhood?

One way to explore the answer is to think about the nature of the neighbourhoods in which we live. Litter and graffiti, crime and anti-social behaviour, run-down and derelict buildings, high unemployment, low incomes, isolated elderly, disaffected youth, poor quality shops, inadequate public transport, social isolation, ill health, and racism affect every neighbourhood in various ways, with some experiencing particular problems more than others.

How has this happened? Who influences the development of our neighbourhoods? When I have run this question as an exercise in training sessions, participants’ responses have included residents and their associations, shopkeepers, businesses, community and voluntary groups, car owners, transport operators, landlords, utility companies, the NHS, the local council, housing associations, schools and colleges, social services, police, political parties, businesses, faith groups, landlords and developers, and transport operators. You may be able to think of others.

Conflict between volunteer groups can reduce their impact

Given this complexity of influences on the neighbourhood, how much influence is exercised by neighbourhood-based organisations such as residents and tenants groups, faith organisations whose congregations live in the neighbourhood, specialist interest groups (such as mothers), community associations, and social and sports clubs? Do they work together on a common agenda to negotiate with the other people/organisations that shape the neighbourhoods? Does the council listen to them? Is it possible to change the behaviour of landlords (private renting, shops, other business premises) in terms of their investment?

If the answer to the these last three questions is no, then achieving change through volunteering and active citizenship in our neighbourhoods is always going to be a struggle. Influence may also be reduced if there is conflict between different sections of residents because of differences in income, life-style, culture and faith, with each group living in their own silos with no real interconnections.

Can local organisations come together to give each other strength and increase their negotiating power with those that control the economic and social shaping of our neighbourhoods? In Croydon, the council has chosen not the take advantage of the legal ability to set up neighbourhood committees with resources to enable more local say in council service delivery in the area and on planning and project development. By not doing so, it is leaving too much influence in the hands of landlords and developers.

It can be difficult to recognise our own prejudices

But working together also poses problems. Activists have many aspects to their lives including work, family, ill-health and other interests and involvements. There is never enough time in the week to do everything that could be done, including keeping up-to-date with what is happening.

There are also difficulties in learning how to work with others, to recognise our own prejudices towards other individuals or social groups and learn the skills of negotiation and compromise around a common agenda. Problems with personal inter-relationships can often limit action or split an organisation. We often mask our prejudices. We can often be impatient about listening to what others are saying and take their points of view into account, especially if they are not good at verbal articulation. It is too easy to be distracted and forget the goal collective action is seeking to achieve.

It’s worth organisations asking themselves from time to time what their goals are

There are a range of questions which can be useful for individuals and organisations to ask. What are the main issues of concern facing the neighbourhood and Croydon? How helpful are local councillors? What suggestions have you got for how the council can improve its engagement with residents? What campaigns are you supporting and what representations have you made to councillors or council officials? How do you keep yourself informed on Croydon issues e.g. local newspapers, the Croydon Citizen, websites, Croydon Radio, organisations’ newsletters and email alerts?

It is always worth organisations asking themselves from time to time what they are trying to achieve, what are the limits on their effectiveness, what tactics do they use which have been effective, and whether they need help with improving their methods of communication through websites, email and on social networks.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Robert Ward

    Thanks Sean. I don’t quite follow the line of argument here but here are a few comments on specifics.

    I don’t think anyone has suggested that volunteering is any kind of panacea, but it is part of the mix. I would also contend that problems are rarely solved, just managed downwards. Take the example of littering, it is bad or good but never zero.

    As you point out collaborating together is difficult, especially between narrowly focused groups whose participants are limited in time. More fundamental may be a lack of leadership and political skills. Setting up local committees with money to spend, which the council has chosen not to do, may be because they perceive that lack of skills.

    I wholeheartedly agree that any organisation should regularly look at what they are doing and why and how they are doing it.

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Volunteering is increasingly being held up as the answer to a number of things: most recently managing Croydon’s parks. So our parks would be managed by whom, to achieve what, with what skills and experience and knowledge, answerable to whom, removeable by whom? Should public funds be entrusted to volunteers and on what basis? What about the skilled, experienced, paid staff who are replaced by the free people of undetermined ability? Managing volunteers is different to a salaried team and can be difficult: they can decide they’ve had enough at any time. You can’t get them to do things they don’t see the need for. And so on.

      Then we get to the really tricky stuff: what really motivates volunteers? What is their true agenda? What impact do they wish to have on others? What payback are they expecting? If they come from minority interest groups such as churches, how will those who do not share their views feel about their being in charge?

      I like the sound of MoveIn and commented to this effect on the piece Jonny wrote about it. That’s because it appears to be about individuals taking action to create a collective effect. A lot of energetic, motivated parents all sending their children to a school in a difficult area could do the same. But in general I think volunteerism is a risky attempt to cut costs,