Straight Talk

Jill Parker explores how volunteering can act as a force for inclusion.

Jill Parker • Senior Policy Advisor • Voluntary Organisations Disability Group

What is inclusion? Generally, we accept a definition of inclusion that is about respecting and upholding the rights of people who experience disadvantage and tackling barriers to integration into mainstream society. I would like to offer you a complementary, but possibly less comfortable, view.

Inclusion involves reciprocity. It means acknowledging that we are all vulnerable in some contexts and on some occasions. We all also have capabilities, assets and talents. Each one of us is a mixture of vulnerability and strength. When we think about people in this way, the definition of some people and organisations as ‘care providers’ and of others as ‘care recipients’ is a construct which does not stand up to scrutiny.

Volunteering provides an opportunity to develop genuinely reciprocal relationships that blur the boundaries between care providers and people supported. Gary has been volunteering for Aspire, a learning disability provider based in Hereford, for the last two years. ‘I used to lock myself away, had no confidence, wouldn’t eat. But Aspire staff kept an eye on me and ever since I’ve been helping other people. I help in the Men’s Shed and the garden. Now I’ve got a job lined up doing tree surgery.’

Asked for his thoughts on volunteering for, and receiving support from, the same provider organisation, Gary responded, ‘It makes sense. It means I can go straight back to work when I’ve had my support.’

What does volunteering mean to Gary? ‘I’m really proud of myself; I never thought I’d achieve this. I’ve recently been supporting someone else to build their confidence. I understand because I’ve been there. It feels good to help.’

Gary’s story demonstrates clearly the relationship between making a valuable contribution, building relationships and developing a sense of wellbeing. For those who are not so fortunate, research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad 2010). In a nation which has been dubbed the ‘loneliness capital of Europe’, isolation presents a looming health crisis.

Therefore, fostering reciprocal relationships makes sense at both an individual and a macro level. Now it also makes good business-sense. The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 requires local authorities to consider how the services they commission contribute to the economic, social and environmental wellbeing of their local area. Social value is the benefit to the community, over and above the service that is being directly commissioned.

Providers can push their competitive advantage in tender submissions by demonstrating high social value. It is anticipated that in future, social value is likely to count for 20% of the total score for a local authority tender. As the potential health benefits become clearer, it is also starting to grab the attention of NHS commissioners.

In a provider sector which is in its sixth year of funding cuts, delivering social value is a big ask. However, volunteer initiatives that offer people an opportunity to support others by drawing on the insights gained through their experience of disability or disadvantage, are a way in which care providers can align their social value contribution with their strategic purpose and their core service offering. This is not about replacing paid staff with volunteers. Nor is it about shoehorning volunteers into tightly defined roles. It is about offering people who may have had few life opportunities a chance to contribute and a route to building reciprocal relationships, through exploring how they might volunteer their strengths, talents and interests.

An approach that involves enabling a volunteer to find a role in the organisation where they can give their best contrasts strongly with a system that measures people against shortlisting criteria for work roles or eligibility criteria for support. Volunteering can sit outside our usual processes because it is based on a gift relationship. Mike, who receives a care and support service from Aspire and volunteers for meals on wheels says, ‘It’s about give and take. I like the company. I chat to people; they chat to me. They all know me and look out for me.’ And when he’s given everyone their lunch, how does he feel? ‘I feel good.’

Jill Parker is Senior Policy Advisor at the Voluntary Organisations Disability Group and a Non-Executive Director of Aspire. Twitter: @VODGmembership

The second edition of the Volunteer Management Toolkit is available at

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