Volunteers who help out at their local libraries are “community heroes”, according to the Local Government Association. In fact they are such a great asset to society that they should be paid. Yes, you did read that right. People who offer their services for free to their local community should get a discount on their council tax of £100 – £200 a year.
The LGA has called on all parties to offer £50 million to a “community contribution discount” in order to encourage more people to come forward and work alongside council staff on a regular basis. Its chairman David Sparks says: “We need to do more to recognise and encourage people who give up their spare time for the good of their community. A community contribution discount would not only recognise the fantastic work volunteers do, but could help save the public purse many millions more than it costs. It can help raise the profile of volunteering and encourage a new generation of volunteers to step up.”
Mr Sparks is perfectly right to point out that volunteers save money by providing services that might otherwise cost us more. (Although in the case of threatened library closures, the impetus for voluntary work was to save a service from disappearing.) But he appears to completely miss the point of volunteering, and the stance adopted by the LGA in backing this proposal threatens to undermine the very ethos it purports to commend.
Volunteers are not – and never should be – motivated by money. If people are encouraged to come forward as volunteers because of a financial incentive, they are not volunteers – they are cheap labour. There is a crucial difference.
Voluntary workers are good neighbours, people who act from altruistic motives. They may be people with time on their hands, or they might be cramming their volunteering in between demanding jobs and families. They may derive satisfaction from seeing a jobwell done, ensuring a need is filled, or from putting into practice the tenets of their faith or philosophy.
To suggest that they are looking for a material reward is an insult. Not only will it make local service volunteers extremely uncomfortable, it will also downgrade their status in the eyes of the community they are serving, who will assume they are being paid to carry out their “good works.” The action in which they are engaged takes on an entirely different quality.
And if the thought of a council tax cut does indeed motivate “a new generation to step up” and help in schools, libraries and social services, what happens when they demand a pay increase? Maybe Mr Sparks and his local government colleagues will then be forced to issue a request for volunteers. Yes, remember, those people who work for love not money – whatever happened to them?