Poverty isn’t a lifestyle choice, but volunteering is.

“If we are to make poverty history, we must have the active participation of States, civil society and the private sector, as well as individual volunteers”

Kofi Annan

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.”

Winston Churchill

VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East), an umbrella body for the third sector in the North East are today holding a Blog Action Day (BAD) for volunteers. The aim is to get people in the North East blogging about the value of volunteers on the first day on Volunteers Week 2012.

This post is my contribution to this event and it is, unsurprisingly, going to focus on the role of volunteers in tackling child poverty. As the quote from Kofi Annan above makes clear, if we are to end poverty, we will need the support of everyone to make it happen and volunteerism is key to this.

Volunteering can help to end poverty and can also help to improve the lives of those living in poverty. I’ll provide a couple of examples. All charities, including campaigning ones such as Save the Children or Child Poverty Action Group, are dependent on volunteers to serve as trustees. These volunteers might not be involved in direct service delivery with families or children, but they play a key role in organisations which aim to influence policy and hold politicians to account.

The North East Child Poverty Commission is currently discussing with the Durham Students Union how to provide volunteer work placements for students to undertake around their studies(or as part of them) that are beneficial for both us and the students. We’re identifying a number of specific projects such as pieces of research we want carrying out, helping to organise a conference, developing our social media work etc that we’re hopeful students will be able to help us with later on this year.

My own experience as a volunteer (trying desperately hard not to sound like Smashy and Nicey at this point) has involved coaching football in the East end of Newcastle with children who lived in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the North East. The club was run entirely by volunteers and I’d like to think that it made – and continues to make – some kind of difference to the players, their families and the local community. I’m also a governor at a school in the West end of Newcastle which is in the ward in the North East with the highest proportion of children living in poverty. It’s early days, but again, I’d like to think that my time there isn’t completely wasted and whatever knowledge I have might be of some use to the school in supporting pupils and parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There are lots more examples of the role that volunteers play in tackling poverty. Unions often help to improve pay working conditions for employees and their Learning reps help people to progress in work through acquiring new skills. Advice centres are heavily reliant on volunteers to help them provide advice and support to people with benefit and debt problems – an unintentional growth industry at the present time. Children’s Centres, schools and youth clubs have always relied on volunteers to extend the scope and capacity of the services they offer to children and young people and this is certainly the case at the moment. Food banks are becoming increasingly important to growing numbers of people across the country at the present time and the venture in the North East is delivered entirely through volunteers.

But volunteering alone isn’t going to eradicate child poverty. We know that. And it shouldn’t be seen as a replacement for public service provision. We need politicians to act to end child poverty, but there is a vital role that volunteers and businesses and wider civil society can play in helping this to happen.

Firstly, most political parties are dependent upon small armies of members who volunteer to undertake tasks for them – one might even suggest there is a ‘culture of dependency’ on these members within political parties. Their voice is important, although it may not always appear so. Secondly, the voluntary sector (in the shape of the Give it Back George campaign) had a tremendous result yesterday with the government announcing a u-turn on the cap on tax relief on charitable donations and CPAG recently led a campaign which included some national newspapers to save child benefit which yielded a partial rethink by the government. Thirdly, Greggs, a North East business with a strong interest in child poverty and a strong supporter of local charities, have led a campaign that has resulted in another successful u-turn on the so-called ‘pasty tax’. These campaigns show that with enough support and momentum, politicians can be for turning. Imagine what could happen if all 3 united in agreement to REALLY end child poverty. We might end up with something more substantial to celebrate than cheap luke warm pasties and tax breaks for millionaires….

So, please visit the VONNE blog to see other contributions to the BAD (and follow the action on Twitter using the #BADVolunteers and, if you don’t currently volunteer, please remember

“No-one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”

Edmund Burke

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