Community working – placebo or cure?

philbirchbw-e1297112991794Before I move to the main points of this article I would make a couple of qualifying statements. Firstly that I totally support the invaluable and good-willed work of all volunteers. Secondly, that community is one of the key stakeholders in the Ethiconomics business model. I attempt to make this clear now because what I have to say, and the questions that I ask, are done as a proven supporter of community mind-fullness.

Why I ask the question placebo or cure, is because I am confused. Where does volunteering and community work meet, support or even replace social service? And by that I mean the whole gamut of social services that we have had the privilege of experiencing in the UK for decades. I am not talking here about how far near the end of the drive we have to leave of waste bins or in fact how often these are collected, but about community, care and responsibility.

Do we care less?
Do we give less?

I will offer some statistics to that suggest that we do still care and give. According to the Timebank website,

  • 62% of regular formal volunteers say they start volunteering because they ‘want to improve things/help people’
  • 65% of regular formal volunteers say they get ‘satisfaction from seeing the results’
  • 75% wanted to see the difference it made to people’s lives
  • 84% of those responsible for hiring agree that volunteering is a way to help people find work
  • Over 70% of employers believe that those who volunteer have a better chance of earning a higher salary and gaining promotion

It would appear that we not only do we still offer ourselves to our community because we get satisfaction in making and seeing the value of the results but also that employers are encouraging this type of work in their employees. A win-win evidently. You can do it for fun, for a job, for career progression or even if you just want to help others – bizarrely!

More evidence abounds. Since 1980, Pudsey and the Children In Need activities have raised over £500 million. Since Comic Relief and Red Nose Day started out in 1985it has raised over £900 million. And so on to my confusion.

We give to the above, and no doubt many other good causes and charities and community projects willingly and consistently. We need neither formal tithes nor to build Victorian work-towns like Port Sunlight (although in the light of the appalling housing situation in regards of price and availability of cheaper, sustainable housing this may be a concept worth reviving). We give from our net income and work from our ‘net’ hours. I other words we see the value and benefit from giving our hard earned time and money for the benefit of others, essentially for a selected community. A group of like-minded individuals seizing the opportunity to help others without any formal or defined benefit to themselves as individuals. But why should we? Or rather, why should we have to?

I am not speaking in terms of philanthropy or spirituality or even politically but socially and economically. We are working in times where there is an alarming increase in short term employment contracts that offer no security, no additional benefits and predominantly minimum wages. We work in times where the largest of corporate institutions can avoid legitimate taxes because they can afford savvy corporate ‘loophole’ lawyers. We live in times where those not in any way responsible for the economic cliff dive are on average £2000 a year worse off since the banking failure. We have ever increasing attendees to the growing number of supported food centres.

I am not suggesting that community volunteering is simply all placebo because it is clear that the benefits include and go beyond the feelings of the individual – we can see them at work. We can see, for the most of the time, where our donations and contributions are being delivered and the benefits that they are producing to whichever community receives them. This makes us feel good. Or at least a little better for a little while. Not just placebo then. Real medicine. I will not dwell on the sickening fawning of our current Government to big business and corporate playmates ( the amounts raised by Comic Relief and Pudsey are roughly the same after 50 years of combined fundraising as the tax due by Amazon and Starbucks alone) because I would also like to recognise the ‘community’ work that many companies legitimately undertake. I will not even be cynical about this activity and question just how much is done for genuine impact and how much for PR and marketing column-inches. It happens, which is good.
But I cannot help but wonder.

  • What would happen if every company was legally required to have a social impact target that was treated as importantly as it’s financial targets?
  • What if every company was required to recruit X no. of unemployed/school leaver/apprentices and/or a portion of their staff of over 50 years old?
  • What if every company had to train and develop it’s employees against regulatory requirements?
  • What if every employee was legally required to give a fixed amount of hours into local and community projects?

We don’t need a Government to make us do this. We simply need an alternative view of what our business actually does. If we simply want it to make us richer in financial terms then it can. If we want it to become an integrated, valuable ‘member’ of it’s community (and I do recognise that this may be defined as cultural, geographical and commercial) which positively influences the behaviour and benefits of the entire community and its members then it CAN become this too. How? by deciding to. By making the decision to start valuing community and society, (for after all, a community is only a selected niche within a larger whole) and by committing to doing something tangible about it irrespective of Government tick-lists and lip service to CSR policies. For me it is enterprise that drives growth and enterprise is within each and everyone one of us somewhere. We are creative, flexible, curious and caring by nature so why wait for legislation to draw up the rules – they will only be intolerably tedious and restrictive anyway. Why not structure your whole business around a stakeholder not shareholder model where community (social impact) is as important as financial results.

Am an idealist? Yes. And proud of it because unless you start with an ideal and let other minds find the reasons why it cannot be so, then you will simply be tweeking the wheels within the machine. I am far more interested in building a new machine altogether.

Working in their community is not for everyone but working within a community is a statement of fact (you have to work somewhere and connect with someone). Community, like taxation apparently, is open to interpretation. It comes down to your own support of your own community to the extent that you deem fair and reasonable. It is a personal and professional decision. It may not be the cure of some deeper social malaise but it could make a few more people feel a little bit better for a part of their life. It is, in fact, complimentary medicine which delivers reward and relief to both providers and receivers alike.

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