Building a more diverse society

Karl Wilding, policy director at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), argues that diverse membership in charities and local government is central to a healthy society.

As national champions of volunteering, NCVO knows that getting people active in their communities is vital to the health of our society.

Over 14 million people volunteer for a charity every month. Millions more give their time to help others in informal ways. Our extraordinary collective will to get involved in our communities should be a cause for celebration. NCVO’s recent report, ʻGetting Involvedʼ, maps a huge range of ways people participate, from simple acts like voting or signing petitions, to becoming a councillor.

The report clearly shows that we are a community-minded nation. But behind this, our work also highlights a serious issue of diversity in terms of who is participating. Around 51% of all volunteering hours nationally are contributed by just 9% of the population. We know this group are more likely to be white, middle class and highly-educated. Those living in the most deprived areas are much less likely to volunteer.

When it comes to political action too, those in the highest social grades and with the highest level of education are much more likely to take part. This is true for every kind of activism, even ad-hoc forms, like signing a petition or boycotting goods.

Crucially, this lack of diversity is also reflected in one of the most pronounced forms of civic action ‒ becoming an elected official. The latest data on the demographics of councillors (from 2013) shows most local government representatives to be overwhelmingly white, older, well-educated and male.

People from all backgrounds are involved in active citizenship at all levels. However, certain groups are underrepresented in almost all forms of participation. This is bad for society. Trust in politicians and institutions is already low, and we risk compounding this when people are excluded from having a voice and influence in their community.

Exclusion has personal implications too. There is a wealth of evidence that shows that volunteering is good for confidence, skills and wellbeing. It is often the people who have most to benefit from getting involved who are the most excluded.  When people are being excluded at these levels, is it any wonder we face a diversity issue at the highest levels of local government?

National problem, local solutions

There are a whole range of changes that can be made nationally by government and charities. We told the current Lords Select Committee on citizenship and civic engagement to recognise and support the role of volunteering and charities to citizenship and social cohesion.

While this is a national problem, it is often sitting councillors, in partnership with charities, that are forging innovative local solutions to get more people involved.

Digital exclusion, for example, is a major barrier to participating in society. In Salford, as much as 23% of the adult population lack basic digital skills. Good Things Foundation, in partnership with Salford City Council, have launched a landmark project to support 7,800 disadvantaged people to become independent users of the internet.

By mobilising local community groups and volunteers, they can support others to get online and get involved through better access to local services, community groups and volunteering opportunities in their area.

In London, Haringey Council has partnered with Spice Time Credits to embed participation in approaches to supporting recovery from substance use. Time Credits are like a currency that can be exchanged by service users to access volunteer-led sessions, like art or fitness classes, while service users can earn credits back by volunteering their time to good causes.  Itʼs a simple tool that helps foster civic action amongst some of the most excluded groups and embedding it within support programmes.

Similar initiatives are taking place across the country, and local authorities and councillors can achieve much by working with charities to get more people involved and active in their community. Whether it’s online activism or becoming a councillor, in order to engender trust in public institutions, cohesion in society and solidarity in communities, it is necessary that we enable everyone to participate.


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