Posted by: roamingolivia | November 16, 2010

Why I don’t buy the Big Society thing

Alternative title: My experiences trying to volunteer in the UK

When I read about the Big Society, I am somewhat bemused. So many politicians urging everyone to help out in their communities. You can help an old person, or a young person. A poor person, or a disabled person.

Yeah, okay, fine. But it is really hard to volunteer here. Some reasons:


1. Excessive training programmes just to go anywhere near a volunteering opportunity.

I am really for training programmes. I think they’re important, particularly if you’re working with children or in difficult emotional situations. But I spent three entire Saturdays (8 hours), including when I had guests in town, doing a training on dealing with children. And then I never started volunteering because the organisation lost its funding.


2. Lots of criminal records checks.

I’m also generally in favor of preventing criminals from hanging out with and molesting/abusing/hurting children. But this system is really, really bureaucratic. It takes several weeks (maybe longer for me, as I’m a foreigner, and also I have to request records from multiple states in the US). Not to agree with the Telegraph (the shame!) but… this article has some points. There are new policies that indicate that anyone spending a certain amount with children needs a background check (apparently including parents who home-school their own children, according to the even more cringe-worthy Daily Mail) – not sure what happened with this but there was talk that you’d need one just to pick up kids from school.

I’m really for people working on a daily basis with children – particularly as their employment – having a CRB check. But if you want to just meet a kid and help them with your homework, you’d better find a financial backer to at least pay for your background check.

Plus this whole thing obscures the fact that most kids are getting hurt or molested by people in their own families, and unless you’re going to basically make everyone have a CRB check just to live or get an Oyster card, this is really not even addressing the most major issues.

Oh also you need to have similar background checks to work with the elderly, which is fair enough in some ways because that way you won’t steal their money, but on the other hand, what if you just want to help them buy groceries or cook them a meal every week, and you don’t want to go through 6 weeks of training?

And this issue is not going to go away – it’s pretty unpopular to remove protections for the young and old (I don’t even know if I’d be for it), and there will be a media debacle the first time someone molests a child, and is found to have been controlled by the old law but not by the new one.


3. Incompetence/lack of response by voluntary organisations

So after we’ve established that, for legal reasons (background checks), you can’t really address needs in your community with the young or old, so you basically need to go to an NGO/organisation. This is where the training thing comes in. But even before that, it’s hard to get them to even write back to you. The other week I wrote to 5-7 NGOs running voluntary programmes in London. Two wrote back; one just wrote back to send me a link to their website, although I’d asked specific questions about what their biggest needs were. The other asked if I wanted to talk to some kids about my career, and I said yes, and then I never heard anything again.


So, yeah. Good luck with that Big Society thing.



  1. Good for you to look into it at least! I have had the same trouble as you trying to do this since moving to Europe…the only thing I’ve managed to do for charity in the UK is donate my old couch.

  2. I’m with you on how much more difficult it is. I volunteer teaching English to adults at their homes in London, and I had to go through 4 Saturdays of 5 hour training plus a CRB check (for working with vulnerable adults) which took nearly 8 weeks! Similar volunteer work I had done in the US only required me to show up.

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