Monday, 8 November 2010


In the current furore about making voluntary work compulsory I wonder if counsellors might have any thoughts on the subject? Counselling has a long, unthinking history with voluntary work. We are compelled to volunteer in order to train, something that has never been questioned. ‘Compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’ are two ends of a spectrum and various principals support each description. It’s the difference between volunteering to join the army and being conscripted: the motivations and outcomes for each are going to be very different.

Organisations in the voluntary sector – other than counselling organisations – have long recognised this:

But if you force someone to volunteer, it's not volunteering.
John Ramsey, head of volunteering at Age Concern England, 2007

Any future legislation would need to address the distinction between volunteer service that is willingly undertaken and can be completed at will, and community service that is the fruitful engagement of those who may face consequences if they fail to show up.
Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of volunteering charity CSV, 2007

The Police Service had a brief struggle with this issue too when it became clear that in order to join the Service two years of voluntary work as a Special Constable had become a prerequisite. This was purely because of funding issues i.e. police were needed but the money wasn’t available to pay for them and so civilians were taking on a policing role. There are obvious and historically appalling problems with this, rather summed up in the police recruitment puff reassuring potential volunteers that they will

Whichever Service is doing the recruiting; having the same uniform as real police officers is offered as the primary benefit of volunteering. That this hasn’t resulted in massive objections from every corner of the educated land suggests that our understanding of history and basic civic participation is dead; being part of a society that unthinkingly consumes everything it's fed, perhaps counsellors can't be expected to do or think or consume anything different from the rest of that society. Catherine Bennett offers some analysis of the police and other compulsory voluntary work.

I don’t know what the answers might be to counselling’s current sleepwalking through the voluntary process but a first step might be: Wake Up. There’s no questioning at all of the principals behind the foundations of who we are and what we do: people with good intentions jump through hoops, people with good intentions set the hoops up and we all know what the road to hell is paved with.

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