In Ian Hislop’s latest series on the BBC, “Age of the Do-Gooders” you can see the origins of the sense of morality that underlies our conception of volunteering today. He starts off with the question that he posits was the driver of this new moral sense in Victorian Britain: “What can we do?”
Isn’t this just the question that lies behind today’s volunteering?
Hislop starts off looking at the examples of this Victorian do-gooding through six individuals (paraphrasing from the BBC website):
- William Wilberforce – his successful campaign to abolish slavery which was just one part of his campaigning (he also campaigned against duelling and helped found the RSPCA), gave a moral basis to this 19th century movement.
- Robert Owen and his model mill town at New Lanark in Scotland
- Thomas Wakley, founder of The Lancet, who exposed the fatal consequences of cronyism in the surgical profession
- George Dawson, inventor of the civic gospel which inspired a generation of Brummies to take responsibility for their city.
- Charles Trevelyan, who battled to make the civil service a meritocracy
- Octavia Hill, a pioneer of social housing, despite her opposition to cash hand-outs or anything that might create a dependency culture.
Volunteering: social change one step at a time
The concept that William Wilberforce and others believed in was that rather than a tumultuous social revolution at the top (in the mold of the French Revolution), the idea was that social improvement could be arrived at one small step at a time and everybody could play their part.
It strikes me that this is the moral basis and driving belief that binds our sense of the importance of volunteering today.
Each of the examples that Hislop picks out, help tease out the many tensions and contradictions that we’re struggling with today in the way we approach our thinking about volunteering.
What is the social good we’re volunteering for?
Wilberforce puts the question, “what is the social good?”, at the centre of our sense of citizenship and moral responsibility to others. What defines volunteering as volunteering today is our sense of social good. If we’re not clear about what is a social good, we’re not clear what is volunteering. I think the idea of beneficial social impact is one of the two fundamental criteria as to what is volunteering. There are echoes of this in the public benefit clause in charity legislation.
Trading individual freedom for the greater social benefit- at what point does it cease to be volunteering?
Does volunteering need to be voluntary if the social good imperative is high enough? Robert Owen‘s actions highlights the contradiction of obliging citizens to do good for the benefit of themselves. Hislop cites the example of residents committees appointed to inspect the cleanliness of tenants in the housing Owen provided workers in New Lanark. Many critics said it was a paternalistic and autocratic approach, it was the absolute opposite of freedom.
In other words, it a a criticism that highlights the tension between moral imperatives (social good) and freedom. This is interesting as today we consider positive personal freedom and beneficial social impact to be at the heart of volunteering.
What are the moral standards that join the professional and the amateur?
Thomas Wakley wanted to democratise access to information about current medical knowledge. Wakley’s work founding the Lancet shone light on the importance of ethical standards, scrutiny and accountability for the work that was supposedly in the wider public interest. This centrality of moral standards provides the nexus for the values behind the professional and amateur sense of honour.
What is our personal responsibility to meet social needs?
George Dawson – don’t ask what you can do – ask what more you can do. He was a believer in civic virtue. The civic gospel he developed was about being proud in your community and thinking about what you do for others in your community. Dawson’s questions go to the heart of our current soul searching about volunteering’s call to action- what responsibility do I have to contribute to remedying of the social needs of those around us.
Professional servants of the wider social good
Charles Trevelyan asked the question of the link between public service and the civil service. Seems to be something Cameron is harking back to with his phrase a civic service rather than a civil service. Cameron said in July 2010:
“I hope that over time, we can start thinking of civil servants as civic servants because all of you do the jobs you do because you care about the future of this country.
“And I hope we will have a permissive regime, where if you are taking part in the Big Society, you are involved in a project in your local community, or in a volunteering activity, that is something your workplace will actively encourage.”
Trevelyan’s callous line on the Irish famine where he blamed Irish families for the famine, underlines the moral controversy of basing actions on perceived social good.
For example, he described the famine as:
“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. ¦The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people”.
While morality can provide a powerful driver for social change, it can also lead to the blaming of the victims of misfortune themselves if they don’t respond to the call to action and volunteering, branding them authors of their own problems.
I remember in a previous role in community development how the call to volunteer could easily become a double-edged sword. Those who volunteered would be generally praised, but it could equally lead to those who failed to respond to the call to be disparaged in the eyes of their peers. So the case of Charles Trevelyan reminds us that moral drivers can often also lead to social inaction or harmful social impacts, just as they can to beneficial social action.
It’s interesting to juxtapose this view with that of Robert Owen who believed in education and labour reform because it was the environment that people lived in that affected their life chances.
Honour and dignity between the servant and the served
Octavia Hill‘s experience highlights the issue of the relationship between the volunteer’s providing public service and those benefiting from the public service. Hill worked to improve what we now describe as social housing- not least through making the relationship between tenant and landlord more personal and professional along the lines of social work. Hill is widely credited with founding modern social work. This relation is all about finding the balance between one which is overly formal (rigid, inflexible,cold) and that which is overly informal (confused,biased,subjective).