Between 2007 and 2009, I was Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s champion for volunteering, while remaining on the Liberal Democrat benches. Much of Octavia Hill’s work had, indirectly, led up to that appointment and, indeed, to the thinking that has made government after government, of whatever political hue, interested in harnessing the extraordinary might and energy of volunteers. There is of course a catch in all this. You cannot ‘make’ people volunteer, although politicians often think that volunteering is the answer to all society’s ills. It is not, and indeed volunteers will always do just what they want to do, and not what they do not want to do, and through it all they need to be inspired, led, thanked, trained, evaluated, appraised and loved. Indeed, the only thing that is free about volunteers is that they do not get paid a salary.
You don’t have to be poor to need help. Perhaps Octavia Hill would have been less familiar with that idea, although she did argue that ‘we are all parts of one great human family’. You might be old and isolated, you might just have come out of hospital and need help with shopping, you might need someone just to go to the shops with, you might need a ride to the GP. We all have times in our lives when we could do with a helping hand. Octavia Hill’s huge sense of duty, her moral imperative, may seem unfashionable to our ears, but it is in fact absolutely right:
'Every individual has a contribution to make to the common life and is immeasurably poorer if he is not enabled to make it and that therefore the only cure for the ills of society lies in the conversion and education of individual men and women.'
But how do we encourage volunteering now, in a society where the numbers volunteering seem to have flat-lined if not reduced? Making it ‘compulsory’ to do some form of community service may not always be a bad thing in itself, but if it gets confused with volunteering, it will put the genuine volunteers off. I think we need to be much more honest about the human motivation to get involved, recognising that, for many people, exhortation simply will not work. Providing an opportunity for someone to do something they enjoy while giving service will be much more effective. Most of us need to feel needed, and volunteering to help others is one sure-fire way to feel needed, wanted and useful.
Octavia Hill realised something profound. To be effective as a volunteer (and, I would argue, as a social worker as well) you need to care about the people you are helping in a profound way:
'You cannot learn how to help a man, nor even get him to tell you what ails him till you care for him.'
Octavia Hill encapsulated themes that should be just as relevant for modern volunteers as for those who helped her a century ago — a sense of sympathy and love, a real desire to help, a longing to understand, a desire to get organised. It is because of her we have housing associations, the National Trust with its huge army of volunteers, and a view of volunteering that makes us able to encourage the oldest and the youngest to join efforts to make the world a better place. And that is the legacy she has left us with — one we would do well to build on, and cherish and value.
This extract is taken from 'Octavia Hill and volunteering', the ninth chapter in the Demos collection The Enduring Relevance of Octavia Hill.