All volunteering is good, but some is more good than others……….

I would like to set out to you a dilemma that CleanupUK has. And, following the crude slaughtering of George Orwell’s memorable Animal Farm quote in the title of this blog, I will try to be kinder to an ancient Chinese proverb later on….

Anyway, back to the dilemma. Part of what CleanupUK does is to work with residents in the boroughs of east London. It is called the Beautiful Boroughs Project and the aim is to encourage residents to set up a local litter-picking group so as not only to keep their neighbourhood tidy but also to strengthen the feeling of community and friendliness in the area.

Our feedback from residents on this project is positive : 84% of participants now feel that they have more contact with people in their local community and 79% of participants now feel that their own actions can help to change their community. So it really does help people to develop their relationships with their neighbours and to help them to have pride in their area.

Our dilemma, then, is this. Increasingly often we are approached by big businesses who, as part of their commitment to corporate social responsibility, want to go out on a volunteering day and achieve something of value. For many of these businesses, it also acts as an internal team-building and bonding exercise for their staff – a chance to spend time out of the office with work colleagues and develop a deeper sense of trust, cooperation and understanding with each other.

I would dearly love to take these businesses up on their offer. “Goodness – who on earth could turn down the offer of 20-30 pairs of hands to clear a grot-spot that is blighting a neighbourhood ?”, I hear you ask.

Well, the reason that we don’t currently entertain such groups is two-fold. First, within the bounds of The Beautiful Boroughs Project we don’t believe in the idea of bringing in people from outside the area to help local people clean up their own neighbourhood. And why don’t we believe this is a good idea ? Mainly because we believe in helping people to help themselves and not in doing stuff for them. That way, they really value the change they have made to their community and they are more likely to take greater pride in making sure that it stays that way, not least in exerting peer pressure on their neighbours not to litter or fly-tip the newly-cleaned area.

And this is where Chinese proverb comes in. The quote isn’t quite an exact fit but it reminds us that people benefit most not from having things done FOR them, but from being shown how to do things for themselves : “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.

And second, we have encountered less than positive reactions from local people when we have brought in outsiders to help at their local litter-pick. “What are those people doing here ?”, they ask. “This is OUR neighbourhood and WE want to be the ones who look after it.”

So we at CleanupUK think that the most obvious answer to this dilemma is to try to encourage corporate volunteers to take action in an area where one of them lives and to include other local people in the exercise. That way, they have the best of both worlds and their action is more likely to be sustainable than merely one-off as at least one of them will have a vested interest in continuing to look after the place.

And, sure – there are areas of activity where it is entirely justifiable for a team of outsiders to come in and do something, perhaps when the local residents don’t possess the necessary skills. But, even then, I would advocate involving the locals as much as you possibly can in the venture so that they feel pride in it and ownership of it way into the future.

So – what do you think about all this ? How would you make best use of corporate volunteers ? Please leave a comment below and add to what is an important debate to be had.

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