Volunteering/Voluntarism: = Community Development?

Introduction and some Definitions:

The term Community Development (CD) has been discussed globally in the last 30 to 40 years but has been in demise (1) since its heady days in 1970s. Similarly, the notion of Volunteering/Voluntarism has been part of fierce debate and many supporters and skeptics are in agreement with the recent changes in attitudes to volunteering by young people since the turn of the 21st Century.

Before we can fully discuss these issues, we need to understand the terms: Community Development and Volunteering/Voluntarism, respectively.

Firstly, CD was defined by American Sociologist Amitai Etzioni: ‘…as being applied to youth work practice and framework organisation, training and ideology’. (2)

Within Britain, Vipin Chauhan defined CD as:

“…the personal development of young people…” (3)

However, Brady and Hedley have put the definition of CD very succinctly:

“…The constituency of community is among the powerless and the disadvantaged; the first priority of community development is enabling those who are traditionally deprived of power and control over their common affairs…” (4)

The issue of race and class has lost favour in political debate following long periods of Conservative government and the advent of ‘New Labour’.

Research in 2000 has revealed the massive changes in the structure of family, community, places of work and the resultant economic downturn. For some young people it has been the best time for others the worst time. For many, it has been both.

There have been significant changes in attitudes to volunteering by young people since 2000. For many young people Community Development is the practice of Volunteering and Volunteerism and some see it in terms of community ‘civic’ engagement, community empowerment and community action.

More recent research in America around 2003 by Luloff and Bridger (5) has argued that: ‘from an interactional perspective, CD is seen as a dynamic process involving diverse social groups. All Communities have numerous distinct groupings of people.’

For the purposes of this paper, we can define “community” as stated in the Collins Dictionary of Sociology: “…any set of social relationships operating within certain boundaries, location or territories…” Also, the concept of “community” is one of the most difficult and controversial in modern society. According to Lowe (6), “community” ‘ranks alongside the notion of class in this respect’ – the term has been misinterpreted and subjected to wide use and abuse. Whilst the definition “community action” according to the Collins Dictionary is:

“…The organisation of groups to achieve change within the community.

Others like Andrew Blowers (7) posed the question: ‘what makes a neighbourhood a community?’ Blowers answers this by viewing a neighbourhood/community as:

  • Geographical area within a city/town.

  • Social system, spatial grouping, looking at historical or cultural aspects.

  • Neighbourhood ‘type’ based on social or spatial characteristics (e.g. council estate or suburban residential).

  • Local viewpoint – taking account of local individuals and groups; their perceptions and experiences (including demographic patterns, personal issues and interaction in the area).

  • Highlighting the various processes in operation: politics, economic change, patterns of employment etc.

  • Examining environmental factors, e.g. amount of green space, levels of pollution, condition of housing.

In addition, the word ‘Volunteer’ can mean ‘International Volunteer’ – part of a community development programme (volunteer vacation). More popularly known in the current thinking around Volunteering is the Youth Volunteers aged (12-21) – who voluntarily work for the benefit of the community. There are a number local and national organisations focusing solely on the promotion of youth volunteering as young people are seen as the future. Locally, Sheffield Youth Futures (formerly Sheffield Youth & Community Service) and SOVA in partnership with other voluntary organisations won a new contract from V (the national Voluntary charity which promotes volunteering).

Historical Developments & Perspectives in Volunteering/Voluntarism: = Community Development

Where does Volunteering/voluntarism or philanthropy (do gooding) fit into the wider concept of other Community Development specialisms including community (civic) engagement and community action?

‘Voluntarism’ or ‘Volunteering’ – the doctrine of voluntary participation has been focus of extensive debate in recent times. Some use the word ‘Volunteering’ to describe the philosophy of voluntary work that has been influential in traditional and contemporary conservative thinking of a decrease in the role of the ‘nanny’ state, increase in individual self-help, with a return to Victorian values and to consumer orientated groups that are established to meet a particular need or a set of needs. But voluntarism is an important issue from other political perspectives.

One of the strongest supporters of Voluntarism = Individualism & Self-help was Margaret Thatcher and the New Right who argued that the ‘Voluntary sector can offer a more flexible response to a range of social problems than statutory services’. There are obvious contradictions whether the ‘voluntary sector is there to replace or rather complement’ state provision, political implications of funding: ‘…he/she who pays the piper calls the tune…’ and management of voluntary sector is state responsibility? The mainstream conservatives differed with Thatcherite & New right view in that they emphasized on community care ‘informal networks, local authority to have a co-ordinating/mobilizing role and a ‘safety net’ approach. Whilst the Marxists argued that these contradictions within Voluntarism and the Voluntary sector can be seen as a challenge or a threat to effective state provision, Volunteering = community development represent a particular class – bourgeois elements to Voluntarism and Voluntarism can minimize state responsibility with the added exploitative relations of having free/cheap labour. The socialist and liberal viewpoint echoes the last point as well. However, the notion of communality rather the community accords with both traditional and contemporary Marxism.

In brief, the nature and functions of Voluntarism or Volunteering can be two-fold: a) Voluntary organisations can tend to focus on: Voluntary “work”, pressure group activity, research/innovation b) Community/Neigbhourhood Participation can tend to focus on: “Informal Networks”, family, Community “Pool”.

A number of elements to Voluntarism or Volunteering – encompasses groups from multi-million pound service providers like the Burngreave New Deal Project (BNDFC) to an individual helping out a neighbour. Relationship between government and voluntary organisations is also diverse – some entirely government funded, others receive no financial help at all. The issue of funding is critically linked to that of independence. In a way, it is a re-emergence Voluntarism or Volunteering and the Victorians re-visited or is it something new?

Many youth work practitioners, sometimes described as ‘activists’ have, in recent years, re-invented the need for Volunteering and Volunteers to get involved. In the 1980s and even 1990s – words like ‘users’ or ‘constituency of young people’ were used to describe members of youth clubs/centres – who essentially were Volunteers carrying out a non-compulsory, unpaid activity to benefit the community.

Within the present context, this historical cycle of volunteering/voluntarism and philanthropy seems to be repeating itself. The early origins of CD and Volunteering/Voluntarism can be traced back to the British and French Colonies. According to Midgely et al (8), the CD movement of the 1950s and 1960s inspired the proponents of Community Participation who focused on small communities that were beginning to establish democratic decision-making institutions, locally. There are obvious differences between community participation and community development (9). As a result, some of the first proponents of the CD approach were missionaries and colonial officials (10) where the dual purpose of this approach was to ‘exploit and civilize the existing labour under the pre-text of bringing democracy to the local population’.

Nowadays, the majority of Volunteering projects serve a slightly different purpose and tends to be humanistic and less exploitative with some unintended patronising behaviour. Many young people – especially students on a gap year – opt to volunteer locally or internationally to gain new experiences and travel the world at the same time!

Historically, within ex-colonies, the British government produced a report into one particular African country entitled: ‘Mass Education in the Colonies’ which argued for literacy training, agriculture, health and other social services through self-help. The resultant effect was that, in many ex-colonies, books and manuals were written (11) and according to the Indian writer Bhattacharyya (12) ‘community development drew inspiration from both missionary and indigenous sources’. Also, within India itself, he added

“…the utopian experiments of Tagore and Gandhi were very influential, after independence where many Indian Community Development projects were launched – the debt to Gandhi’s philosophy was obvious…” (13)

Whilst in America, Etzioni argued that the CD model contained certain factors:

“…disruptive tensions and rigidities in advanced capitalist societies… (14).. political, economic and the values of society which meant that an individual or community should be free from political manipulation, and not because of their belief in a particular value that forces them to accept restrictions in order to benefit the community..’ (15).

Issues and Problems

The issue of the potential for political manipulation has come into sharp focus within the local context via the government funded BNDFC agency in the Burngreave area. The reality of the partnership with the local government: Sheffield City Council has meant that some of the funding from New Deal might have helped to subsidise the council’s spending.

However, the greatest success of CD in the 1970s, was in ‘Housing Renewal’ which succeeded in ensuring that the ‘people within communities had certain control of Community Development in terms of the environment they wanted’ after renewal projects were completed (16). The key issue was the ability to relate to groups and people in ways which are neither imposing nor patronising.

According, to American, Sociologist Amitai Etzioni: young people are hit by the ‘participation deficit – in the sense that many of their careers or personal opportunities through social structures in society are very limited’.

Many professionals and bureaucrats, within the systems and structures, limit the few choices that are open to young people (or clients) ‘by chanelling resources, the tendency is to dampen dissident movements’. Furthermore, frustration is experienced by particular youth groups when they cannot help to shape those institutions which represent what they may achieve and express together. Etzioni has powerfully argued that CD would help young people in the community to ‘avoid irrational bureaucratic and therapeutic manipulation by professionals’ (17). Once these are overcome, then, more facilities become available for interest groups, lobbies, campaigns as do the access to public services.

Also, greater involvement (through lobbying, campaigns and collective bargaining – rather than election) will contribute towards the development of the ‘sense of responsibility’ or ‘sense of community’.

Success of Community Development & Volunteering/Voluntarism

The success of CD in the 1970s through housing renewal projects is now being mirrored in the local Sustrans Project: to improve the environment and community safety in the Burngreave/Pitsmoor area around the Firshill neighbourhood. The previous face-lift scheme and the current Sustrans project are good examples of the CD approach in terms of volunteers and community action. The final outcome of improving the quality of life for local residents will then hopefully increase the sense of community within the area.

The question of whether volunteering/voluntarism is part of the wider concept of community development was posed in this paper. The answer is that whilst the term volunteering conjures up the image of unpaid activity for the benefit for the community, in reality, volunteering/voluntarism benefits the community. It enhances the wider concept of Community Development, as long as the therapeutic or political manipulation by professionals is kept to a minimum and volunteering is recognized and rewarded through non-monetary awards. The New Year Honours for local volunteers (18) is a good example of reward and recognition for volunteering.

Future Debate & Conclusions

As practitioners of Community Development and as recruiters of volunteers we need to re-visit the successes of the 1970s and evaluate what the current period is going through in terms of the economic downturn. Acknowledge the massive changes in the structure of family, community, places of work and significant changes in perceptions and attitudes to volunteering since 2000.

In conclusion, community development and volunteering/voluntarism are part and parcel of ‘community action’ which simply means the organisation of groups to ‘achieve change within the community’ – the recent ‘Burngreave Bouncing Back – peace March on 15th March 2008, is a good living example of groups trying to achieve change within the community.


(Free-lance Journalist/Consultant & Carer, Sheffield)


CD: Community Development (1) Ellis, J. (1989) Breaking New Ground: Community Development with Asian Communities, in association with Community Development Projects Association, Bedford Square press, London. (2) Etzioni, A. (1967) “The active society’ New Jersey, Free Press. (3) Chauhan, V. (1989) Beyond Steel Bands ‘n’ Samosas: Black young people in the youth service, National Youth Bureau, Leicester. (4) Brady, M and Hedley, R. (1990) ‘Working Partnerships Community Development in Local Authorities: Community Action. (5) Luloff, And Bridger (2003) (6) Lowe, (1986) (7) Blower, A (1974) ‘The neighbourhood exploration of a concept’ in The City as a Social System (Open University). (8) Midgley, J. Hall, A. Hardiman, and M & Narine, D. (1986): Community Participation, social development and the State: Methuen, London and New York. (9) Op Cit (10) Ibid (11) Batten, (1962) cited in Midgley et al (12) Ibid (13) Ibid (14) Etzioni, A. (1967) (15) Butters, S. & Newell, S. (1978) Realities of Training: National Youth Bureau, Leicester. (16) Ellis, J. (1989) (17) Cited in Butters & Newell, p57-58 (18) Burngreave Messenger, February 2008, Issue no: 74


I would like to thank Rohan Francis for help in proof-reading and suggestions. Also, thanks to Lisa Swift for comments and suggestions.

© Matloub Husayn Ali Khan

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