Community Wealth Building sounds great. I mean, the idea of tackling economic inequality by ensuring more wealth is generated and retained in communities makes sense to me. But, if it’s to do with generating wealth, what’s that got to do with volunteering?
Unfortunately, anybody reading the consultation document might struggle find an answer to this question. Volunteering is not mentioned once, and the language adopted to describe Community Wealth Building (CWB) makes it a bit tricky to join the dots. However, we argue in our response to this consultation that volunteering is actually vital to the CWB agenda.
The CWB model is based on 5 pillars:
- Finance – ensuring that flows of investment and financial institutions work for local people, communities and businesses.
- Workforce – increasing Fair Work and developing local labour markets that support the prosperity and wellbeing of communities.
- Land and Property – growing social, ecological, financial and economic value that local communities gain from land and property assets.
- Spending – maximising community and business benefits through procurement and commissioning, developing good enterprises, Fair Work and shorter supply chains.
- Inclusive Ownership – developing more local and inclusive enterprises which generate community wealth, including social enterprises, employee-owned firms and cooperatives.
The link to volunteering is perhaps still a bit unclear from looking at these pillars but bear with me. Firstly, volunteers are a key part of the workforce that will deliver CWB in practice. The 2021 Scottish Household Survey results revealed that 30% of Scotland’s adult volunteers support activity in their local communities. This equates to approximately 370,000 people. Whilst volunteers are unpaid, time is itself a valuable commodity. By giving their time, volunteers are making a significant investment in their communities which will often, in turn, generate wealth as well as contributing to wider community wellbeing.
Volunteers maintain community green spaces which make it a nicer place to spend time and money. Volunteers in organisations like Citizens Advice Bureaux offer advice and guidance to people in communities which helps them to overcome financial challenges. Volunteers in Credit Unions, not-for-profit financial institutions, provide ways for people in communities to save and borrow money sustainably. Volunteers help people in communities to reduce their carbon footprint whilst reducing their energy bills. Volunteers are the trustees providing governance and leadership for community owned land and property, as well as for social enterprises. All of this activity supports the generation and retention of wealth in communities and is why volunteering should be explicitly acknowledged in CWB legislation.
Participating in volunteering is also an important way for the workforce to build their skills and improve their wellbeing, thus making them more likely to contribute to the local economy as both employees and as consumers. As a result, we believe it is important that Fair Work principles – a central tenet of CWB – should better reflect the value of volunteering for paid workers. In our response, we have recommended that the principles of the Volunteer Charter, which underpin good relations within a volunteering environment, should be reflected in future iterations of the Fair Work action plan. We also recommend that Fair Work principles should include a commitment to Employer Supported Volunteering (ESV) as a way for employers to prioritise individual and community wellbeing.
So why is it so important for volunteering to be reflected in CWB plans at this early stage? The reasons can be summed up in three words: language, engagement and resource.
Let’s explore the language issue first. We have mentioned already that it was difficult to join the dots between CWB plans and volunteering and it seems we were not alone in this sentiment. Many of the stakeholders we engaged to inform our response to this consultation found that the consultation document reflected a very narrow definition of wealth that was not easy to reconcile with wider language around the Wellbeing Economy. The fact that the link between CWB and wellbeing is a bit lacking has meant many in the voluntary sector struggle to see where they fit in the CWB agenda. That is worrying. If the third sector organisations, and the volunteers that support them, cannot see themselves in CWB plans, they will not engage.
This takes us neatly onto the second issue: engagement. The third sector are acknowledged in the consultation document as ‘critical’ for having a ‘collaborative role’ in CWB design and implementation. However, we have heard from several stakeholders involved in CWB pilot areas that engagement with the third sector has not been meaningful so far. There are over 46,500 voluntary organisations in Scotland and approximately 20,000 of these are community groups without charitable status. Meaningful engagement with such a diverse sector takes dedicated time and resource. It is vital that provision for this is considered now.
Last, but certainly not least, we look at resource. Third sector and volunteering activity in communities has been underfunded for years, and is under particular threat at the moment because of the cost of living crisis. One volunteer we spoke to said that he and his peers are ‘at the end of their tether’ due to activities being ‘offloaded’ onto them by the local Council with no resource to support this. Another representative from the sector stated their perception that CWB ‘is a tick box exercise to save money, not to support the local economy’. Without dedicated resource to support CWB activity, there is a real concern that volunteers and the third sector will view plans as a cynical attempt to save money rather than generate community wealth.
With all of this in mind, our views on CWB can be equated to the toss of a coin: heads you win, tails you lose. On one side we can see the significant potential of CWB plans to showcase and support the efforts of volunteers in improving the wellbeing, and wealth, of their communities. On the other side there are still a lot of unanswered questions, and cynicism, about how CWB will meaningfully engage with the third sector and volunteers in practice. It’s up to the Government to determine which side of the coin we land on.
Sarah Latto is policy officer at Volunteer Scotland.