Volunteering is social integration’s silver bullet

When it comes to fostering integration in London, volunteering works wonders. Luckily, the Mayor understands this. 

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Since becoming London’s first ever Deputy Mayor for Social Integration in 2016, the three big questions I am always asked are: What is "social integration"? How do you measure it? How do you improve it? The answers to the first two questions always take a little while to explain – and the Mayor has answered those, in detail, in London’s social integration strategy that he launched on the 14th March. But there is a quick answer to the third: volunteering.

Of course, volunteering is not the only way to improve social integration, nor does it solve every problem on its own. But it is a hugely important tool that government and local authorities can use to bring people together.

The links between volunteering and improving social integration are well known. Research by Volunteering Matters (the UK’s largest volunteering charity) of more than 30,000 volunteers in 2016 revealed that 59 per cent of people who volunteered reported an increased sense of feeling part of the community. More than half (56 per cent) reported an increased appreciation for other people’s cultures and the majority (60 per cent) reported that by volunteering they increased their contacts, networks and friendships. 

These figures confirm the conclusions of earlier work by the Social Integration Commission, chaired by Matthew Taylor in 2014, that set itself the challenge of understanding the importance of social integration in the UK. Its final report – Kingdom United? – contained 13 recommendations, three of which directly emphasised how the power of volunteering should be used to improve social integration.

But encouraging social integration is a meaningless exercise unless the people you are encouraging are provided with simple opportunities to come together around group activity or shared interests. Volunteering does just that. It allows people to connect with others in their local communities who may be from entirely different backgrounds. They create a new bond and shared identity around their volunteering work that goes beyond superficial differences that might otherwise seem important. Volunteering also provides a meaningful way of grappling with social problems – for example, reducing social isolation or improving mental health – for both the volunteer and the person benefiting from the volunteering. A beautiful example is Ireland’s Failte Isteach project – a community scheme involving predominantly older volunteers welcoming migrants through conversational English classes. Both the older Irish English speakers, and the new migrants learning English, benefit from the contact they have with each other.

So why is the value of volunteering often missing in our debates on social integration? One reason may be because social integration itself is often discussed in very narrow terms. Too often it is presented as a euphemism for racial integration, or with an emphasis on how immigrants must be made to understand and subscribe to "British values". As important as that may be, such a narrow focus misses the point that true social integration is an issue for all of us and benefits all of us. It goes far beyond our race or nationality and requires us to consider inequalities based on social class, reducing discrimination based on gender or physical ability, and ensuring that people of all ages and backgrounds can contribute to their local community and share in its benefits. 

Sadiq Khan understands that social integration needed to be approached more broadly and in his new social integration strategy he has, for the first time, defined it in the following way:

"Social integration is the extent to which people positively interact and connect with others who are different to themselves. It is determined by the level of equality between people, the nature of their relationships, and their degree of participation in the communities in which they live." 

This definition considers not only the nature of relationships (i.e. contact) between people from different backgrounds, but also the level of equality that exists and the degree to which people can participate in the communities in which they live. The new emphasis on the importance of participation immediately brings into focus the importance of volunteering.

To make this effective, the Mayor has placed "Team London" – the GLA’s successful volunteer programme - within my remit so that we can directly use the power of volunteering to improve social integration. It has been invaluable to our work AND will be at the centre of our programmes moving forward. 

However, that has required us to examine how we attract volunteers and why some people may choose to volunteer in their communities while others do not. For instance, we know the highest volunteering rates are among those aged 55 years and above and our data on other aspects of their backgrounds was often patchy or non-existent. This has meant reconsidering how we make best use of volunteering data but also being pro-active about encouraging volunteering amongst all Londoners. Last summer we worked with the AfroPunk Festival which attracts young, BAME volunteers, often from the LGBT community, so that we could have better information about the different motivations that those Londoners would have for volunteering, compared to those who might volunteer for a large sports event.

Building on that work, the programmes we will be launching over the next few months include a reward and recognition pilot, to incentive and reward volunteering among young Londoners. By providing rewards, we will seek to encourage more young Londoners, and those who traditionally face barriers, to become active citizens. With matched investment from the #iwill fund, a joint investment from the National Lottery and the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, City Hall will partner with vInspired to pilot digital rewards with the aim of increasing youth volunteering.

The Mayor will launch a new version of his Team London Young Ambassadors programme to incorporate London-specific resources for schools on his top priorities including social integration, housing and air quality. Sadiq will also work to increase the number of 18 to 24 year olds and the number of disabled volunteers in Team London Ambassadors, who welcome tourists at destinations around the city.

The Mayor’s new multi-million pound community sports programme, "Sport Unites" will also focus on ways to better support those Londoners who support social integration through volunteering to teach, coach and participate in sports across the capital.

Most importantly, Sadiq is determined to find more effective ways to normalise volunteering as part of Londoners’ everyday lives. That means making it easier for people to find activities that suit their interests, but also to ensure that employers better support their employees in participating in volunteering in their local community.

When society faces a difficult problem it is a political cliché to say there is no silver bullet, but in addressing social integration, volunteering comes pretty close.

Matthew Ryder is Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement