The MWS Podcast 44: Steven Howlett on Volunteering

My guest today is Steven Howlett who is a senior lecturer at Roehampton University Business School and previously was a senior research fellow at the Institute for Volunteering Research where he was involved in many projects looking at the profile of volunteering, the management of volunteers and polices towards volunteering. He’s the co author of Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century and he’s here to talk to us today about volunteering in general, some of the research projects he’s been involved in and how it might relate to the Middle Way.


MWS Podcast 44: Steven Howlett as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_44_Steven_Howlett

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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

2 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast 44: Steven Howlett on Volunteering

  1. An interesting podcast. Volunteering does seem to be potentially a very integrative practice, moving beyond limited assumptions about oneself, and combining instrumental with more open motivations. I liked the way that Steve saw it in resolutely non-ideological terms, despite the political appropriation of volunteering on many sides (most recently in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, which interestingly I don’t think was mentioned), and I also liked Steve’s characterisation of it as the Middle Way between ‘doing things for yourself and having them done for you’. It seems to be a good example of an area where the terms ‘selfishness’ and ‘selflessness’ (my bugbear moral dichotomy) just don’t apply: volunteers are doing it because they want to, perhaps with some instrumental motives, but rather than being ‘selfless’ they are stretching those motives.

    It also made me wonder what counts as ‘volunteering’. Is helping to run the Middle Way Society ‘volunteering’? We are after all part of the voluntary sector, but work with a philosophical element is not classically seen as part of such activity. I have, in the past, done some of what might be more classically regarded as volunteering, for bodies like Crisis at Christmas and Help the Aged, but often my personal experience there was one of doubting the usefulness of what I was doing, and whether it was a good use of my time on balance. For volunteers to be fully engaged I think they also need to contribute to the policies and the thinking of the organisation they are involved in – at least where they are able to do so. It seems too easy for volunteers to be taken for granted and used as a kind of social cannon fodder, especially in larger voluntary organisations. I’d like to see more aspects of the Middle Way incorporated into the way volunteering works and how volunteers are used.

    1. I also found this an interesting talk by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable contributor. One thing that Steve overlooked, I think, when he discussed difficulties that come up in volunteering, was managing their expectations.

      When I was involved with the Buddhist Hospice Trust I was often approached by Buddhist individuals who wanted to volunteer their services, and not infrequently they had clear ideas about what they wanted to do.

      They wanted to sit with the dying person at the point of death and support their transition to wherever their tradition deemed them to be journeying, using a ritual technique they believed they were competent to carry out. Indeed, some thought this was the only volunteering that would be required of them.

      Some others, who had counselling qualifications or were Reiki practitioners, reflexologists etc. wanted to be able to deploy these particular skills, although the Trust’s brief was that all that was called for was spiritual companionship, with no proselytising tendency.

      When advised that, because no-one could reliably predict the time of a client’s death, the relationship might well be prolonged, and visits not necessarily regular or ‘instrumental’ (in the sense of calling for a specific skill or technique), not a few withdrew their offer of help.

      I think such issues aren’t uncommon in hospices. Making sandwiches, serving tea in the hospice cafe, or trimming the hedges in the grounds may not be as noble as soothing fevered brows, but it’s where hospices are likely to value volunteer help.

      I also developed and coordinated a volunteer home-share day-care service for Essex Social Services, which recruited and used volunteers. These women (and a few men) offered hospitality in their own homes to people with dementia, on a ‘day-care’ basis. They supplied meals, drinks of tea, conversation (of sorts) and some simple creative or recreational pursuits. The settings were homely and domestic but had to be safe and conducive to the care of mentally frail and sometimes challenging people. Boxes had to be ticked. This wasn’t easy work, and it was essential to minimising trouble to match the needs of clients to the needs and capabilities of volunteers: managing expectations (and planning for contingencies) was a carefully considered and resource-hungry exercise. It took two years to establish six volunteers in six homes catering for twelve to fifteen clients in total.

      I think this account of my own experience should throw light on what may be involved. It’s no easy matter to manage volunteers and to capture the essence of volunteering. But I agree with Steve that people who do volunteer have their eyes opened to the complexities of community living. So much is taken for granted these days.

      As for your question, Robert, about our volunteering to do things for the MWS. I do it because I can and want to, for several reasons including the benefits I gain from the study and practice. I volunteer my services in other ways to other causes, and I have a distaste for accepting money or any other reward for doing so, although I selectively accept travel expenses that I couldn’t afford myself. I can’t explain why I don’t like taking money, I’m even unwilling to accept donations to “my favourite charity” which seems perverse.

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