Is Big Society necessarily better society?

Leonie Lewis, JVN Director

Well, the good news is that more people aged 30-50 are volunteering than ever before, which has typically not been the case.  The bad news is that it’s often due to an increasing number of people – particularly in the public and charity sector – becoming unemployed.  We’re hearing this anecdotally from our friends in charities and Volunteer Centres across the UK, and research is starting to bear this out.

This throws up a curious dilemma.  On the one hand, more people are available to volunteer, many of them with huge professional skills and experience.  On the hand, the deep public spending cuts are forcing charities, particularly the small organisations, to majorly cut back on their services, programmes and professional staffing even as demand for their services rises ever higher.  Austerity also trickles down into increased competition for Trust and Foundation funding and less charitable giving at all levels.

As a result, we’re also seeing an increasing number of small charities now run only or nearly only by volunteers with no professional staff at all.  Grassroots volunteering for sure, but in the most precarious manner possible, even though the issues they are trying to address are some of the biggest we collectively face!  So it’s Big Society according to what they said on the tin – but is this a better society?  We know that some of the most amazing social impacts are made by teams of staff and volunteers working together for a common cause.  Pure people power alone, although absolutely amazing, cannot solve some of the really big issues – whether that’s the environment, economy or equality. Sometimes, it is about the funding.

JVN exists to connect Jewish people to volunteering.  People volunteer for different reasons in different circumstances.  During this  difficult time for both volunteers and for charities, we aim to do our best to bring them together to try to make a better society.  If you haven’t yet taken a look at the hundreds of charities in the JVN network – many of them grassroots or very small and needing even just that little bit of help to make a difference – do visit . There really is something for everyone: from one-off opportunities right the way up to Trustees and Lay leaders. And if you know someone who has recently been made redundant or just has more free time, make sure to tell them too.



Categories: Leonie's View, Volunteering, Volunteering Issues


Hi, I'm Mike, JVN's Youth Co-ordinator and blogger. I'll be blogging about all sorts of issues affecting the volunteering community, with a particular focus on how recent developments might affect the UK Jewish community's volunteers. I'm always interested to read the comments you make. If you have something you want to see in the JVN blog, e-mail me at and I'll be happy to talk. And if you're inspired by any of my blogs to volunteer, log on to and register to find your perfect volunteering opportunity.


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5 Comments on “Is Big Society necessarily better society?”

  1. February 13, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    There’s a lot to say in response to this so I’ll try and be brief.

    First, I don’t necessarily agree that more people aged 30-50 are volunteering. What the coverage of VC Wiltshire’s story from last week highlights is that enquiries into volunteering appear to be up but that’s not the same thing as more people actually going on to volunteer. In the early days of the recession VCs across England saw a 80%+ rise in interest in volunteering which was put down to increased unemployment. But Citizenship Survey data for that period does not show more people actually volunteering. I think a key reason for this is a mismatch between what organisations want volunteers to do and what prospective volunteers want to commit to. But that’s a whole other blog post!

    Second I think we have to remember that the vast majority of charities have no paid staff and have never had paid staff. They do critical work in their communities and manage to do is sustainable on scare funding and volunteer hours. So yes, sometimes it is about the funding, but most of the time (at least in terms of the number of charities that exist) it is more about the volunteers. The idea that sustainability is only a product of funding is a myth imho (and I am planning a blog post to outline my thinking).

    Third, I think you are a spot on that a key challenge is that just as paid staff are having to be laid off due to reductions in funding so there are more volunteers available. And how refreshing to see a senior manager realise that these volunteers are increasingly bringing professional skills, experience and expertise and not fulfilling the traditional ‘envelope stuffer’ stereotype.

    Finally, I would challenge the statement that “Pure people power alone, although absolutely amazing, cannot solve some of the really big issues”. For evidence to the contrary look at Egypt, Tunisia and Libya in 2011. Or indeed look at the USA in the 18th Century. As Susan Ellis says, “Nobody gets paid to be a revolutionary”!

  2. February 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    Thanks for your reply Rob – really thought-provoking.

    We also agree there is often a mismatch between what organisations want and what volunteers want. We encourage the charities in our network to think differently, to think flexibly and to thinking about their opportunities from the perspective of the volunteer as well as of themselves – and we are seeing increasing numbers of opportunities that reflect this from the way they are written to the ‘ask/give’.

    In terms of the funding/staffing/volunteer ratio – grassroots charities do critical work and engaged supporters are quite literally worth their weight in gold. But for charities focusing on social care in particular, there are some things that just do need professional staff – so it is a balance. And people are telling us that services which can’t be replaced with volunteers are being challenged/cut back due to statutory funding cuts and a drop in charitable giving.

    We absolutely agree that pure people power can change the world – as a Jewish organisation we believe in Tikun olam, healing the world – but revolutionaries also do need to have someone pay for their ammunition! So it’s a balance. But as you say, if we can unleash the potential of all volunteers – from those who want to stuff envelopes all the way up to running entire charities – then we can change the world for the better.


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