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Volunteers – Free labour or skilled artists?

Gemma Madle

06 Jun, 2024


It’s volunteers’ week in the UK, a week where we celebrate and recognise the contribution of volunteers who give up their time to make a difference. It’s the simple fact that youth ministry and youth work in the UK wouldn’t happen on any significant scale without the tireless commitment of thousands of volunteers who support and lead activities, clubs, groups and events across the nation. Gemma digs a bit deeper into whether in pursuing ‘professionalism’ in youth work do we overlook its value as a ‘craft’?


Did the Welfare State disempower the Voluntary Sector?

The UK has a long history of volunteering. Prior to the 20th century churches, charities and philanthropists provided countless services to those without the financial means to pay for healthcare and education. In 1942, William Beveridge published a report proposing essentially what we now refer to as ‘The Welfare State’ and building on an increasing recognition of the need for State involvement in what had to date been the Voluntary Sector’s domain. However, Beveridge’s original vision of State building on the work of and empowering local communities and the Voluntary Sector was somewhat lost as the State centralised responsibility and quickly became overwhelmed by the demand. Leaving charities and faith groups over the years to find their own ways to fill in what feels like ever-widening gaps and come alongside those that fall through the system’s cracks. My own experience as a community-based Youth Worker and more recently as a local Councillor has left me pondering that…

Our communities have more creativity and capacity to find and resource local solutions than they often realise but how do we re-adjust the structures within local and national Government that seem to disempower communities from doing exactly that?

Steve Chalke’s recent book & podcast series ‘A Manifesto for Hope’ explores how we might reorientate our thinking and practice to return to a more localised expression of Beveridge’s original vision. Both are well worth a read/listen, especially his interviews with other experts.1

Profession or Craft? Is it an either/or?

In November 2022, UK Youth released a report that estimated there were over 180,000 volunteers in the Youth Work sector in the UK providing an estimated £0.6billion’s worth of unpaid labour per year2. Despite the obvious economic value to the sector those of us involved with Youth Work know that this is about much more than free labour. We’re ultimately talking about transformative relationships that change the trajectory of young people’s lives and volunteers are a vital part of community-based youth work, not just a cheap way to get the job done. There is a role for professionalisation in Youth Work, we want common standards, ethics, training and codes of conduct to ensure there’s a consistency of quality and safety in Youth Work delivery and this is where centralised

systems and professionally trained employed workers contribute. However, there is another way to think about Youth Work delivery that our systems often overlook – as a Craft. Crafts are learned over time, skills refined and developed as we practice and invest our time and energy in what we’re learning. The evidence of our skill is seen in the quality of our product. Although much like youth work sometimes you don’t appreciate the skill involved unless you know what goes into making the product! Most of the youth work volunteers I’ve worked with have been “crafters” or “artists” rather than “professionals” and we’ve learned from each other. I’ve brought my professional knowledge and practice and between them they’ve brought years of skilled artistry. Together we’ve seen beautiful stuff happen.

So, a plea to local & national Government:

  • value the “craft” of Youth Work as much as the professionalism
  • recognise the skill involved in creating and maintaining place-based inter-generational relationships
  • and empower communities to make local connections for young people that go beyond your systems and structures

And a huge huge thank you to all the amazing 180,000+ volunteers who give up their time to support young people in the UK. Youth work and ministry really wouldn’t happen without you!

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