Angela Watt: Community volunteers want to help – so why are their voices being lost?

“I speak with volunteers in our community who feel overworked, undervalued and frankly, dejected. One said recently, ‘we all rushed to help, we came together at grassroots and now they are trying to ‘systemise’ community spirit. Don’t they trust us?'”

HAVE YOU EVER tried to go to sleep when you are hungry, when your stomach aches and keeps you awake, then by morning you feel weak and tired with concentration at zero? We talk of children going hungry. We talk and talk and now in this year, 2020, we keep on talking.

Everywhere you look, there are headlines about ‘build back better’ and the ‘new normal’. This rhetoric is not entirely empty – there is a definite energy to do things differently as we move forward. Yet it could be argued that this energy has emerged from a broken system that, having thrown millions of pounds over the years at these ‘people problems’ with little success, needs to change. It could also be said that our energy is coming out of frustration and anger, because in 2020 children are still going hungry. If it wasn’t for the pandemic still in full flow, with the economic and mental health crisis growing rapidly, the excitement in the air for this positive change might be palpable all over Scotland. So let me ask: do you think anything is going to change?

When lockdown hit, overnight the voluntary sector grassroots changed their services, redefined their approaches and responded quickly to community need. They set up new supply chains, created new team structures and knocked on doors with bags of food – they fed the nation. This agility was partially due to the sector’s general state of mind, which is one of action, of immediacy and of no one left behind. The job just had to be done, and fast.

Across Scotland, as arts venues closed their doors, food kitchens opened up; volunteer advice groups began providing electricity keys to families while children’s activity organisations began one on one mental health support. Each voluntary sector leader had to react quickly, listening to the day-by-day changing needs in their local community, finding the gaps and creatively finding ways to fill them. No longer did these leaders read their business plan, for within days it was obsolete; this safety net of knowing the future was gone, and their work became, as one person in the voluntary sector said to me, “like flying a plane while you are designing it”.

Several months on, this sector is understandably suffering exhaustion from their Covid ‘risk and innovation’ response, with more expected in November as the furlough scheme concludes and their financial resources diminish. Yet surely our community groups have proved themselves the foundation of the country, if they ever needed to prove themselves at all. The thousands who volunteered, who helped families on their streets and have gone beyond their own limits to look after their communities are the core kindness and all that is good in the world – of course will be valued for evermore. Yet still there is disconnect.

I speak with volunteers in our community who feel overworked, undervalued and frankly, dejected. One said recently, “we all rushed to help, we came together at grassroots and now they are trying to ‘systemise’ community spirit. Don’t they trust us?”

When seated at the decision-making table, even the economist in the room will say how all activity is about trade-offs, how we need to negotiate to benefit each involved in the transaction. However, over the last decade, I have been in meetings with the public sector where the discussion of collaboration seems to create divide. I head into meetings full of optimism and determination for my co-volunteers, and our community want to ‘get the job done’, yet I come out of meetings questioning what on earth happened. Why did our combined efforts in finding a coproduced solution turn into a conversation about how ‘the community needs to step up’ or – this one I love – ‘you need to professionalise your organisation’. Surely we all want to feed our children?

On the one hand, we have communities with passion, local language and immediate timescales; on the other, we have a system with the required checks and balances for spending public money. Together, we all want our communities to flourish, so why does a huge chasm seem to divide us?

In my experience, these different sides emerge from the complexity of the ‘new system’, which is increasingly a citizen-centred approach, and the ‘old system’ a hierarchical, silo-structured machine. Passion does not last forever, perseverance only gets you so far, but when you have volunteered in your community and still your voice is lost, then you begin to question what community is. If we do not recognise difference, the unique individual standpoint that we all have, then we will never find the shared ground and take the forward steps to unite our country.

Scotland has great diversity; together, we can invent and innovate… Or, at the very least, prevent our children from going hungry.

Angela Watt is the founder and CEO of Resonate Together in Alloa, Board Director at Social Enterprise Scotland and ACOSVO, and co-founder of the ‘Horasis Powered by Resonate’ international project.