Monday, January 12, 2009

Are Londoners more selfish than the rest of the country? Or just busier?

It’s amazing how much reading material reaches ‘Liberal Bureaucracy’, particularly since I married Ros. She gets magazines and mailings from a vast range of organisations and, because much of it is linked to politics and government, I take a keen interest in it.

My attention has been drawn to a report from the Department of Communities and Local Government, which indicates that the proportion of people formally participating in voluntary activities at least once a month is lower in London than in any other English region. 23% of Londoners engage in some form of formal volunteering at least monthly, compared to 25-31% in other regions (step forward the South West, at the upper end of that range).

It doesn’t look good for us, I admit, but I do wonder whether or not there are contributory factors. For example, I spend about ten hours a week commuting, an amount which is hardly extraordinary for Londoners. There is somewhat less of a sense of a community in the faceless city, and less of the groups which thrive in small towns and villages. The temptation to give money so that someone else can do the work is easy to give in to.

As a political activist (of sorts), I find myself wondering if this impacts on the ability of political parties to recruit and retain members and, more importantly, activists. Attending evening meetings tends to get in the way of the rest of my life, occupying time I might otherwise spend with my wife and family, disrupting my meal schedule, and preventing me from doing the other things that occupy the day to day lives of many people.

Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that membership and activity of political parties is in long-term decline. The expectation that women, in particular, will have household or carer responsibilities, increasingly on top of their careers, tends to lessen the desire to commit even more of their precious time to politics, or other volunteering activities for that matter. And now that men are beginning to take on a fairer share of domestic chores, they are less likely to engage too.

Returning to the report though, it is interesting to note that, contrary to some opinions, the involvement of younger people in volunteering activity remains relatively high, although one must differentiate between informal and formal volunteering. 41% of those in the 16-25 age bracket participate in informal volunteering activity at least once a month, a figure which drops away through the age ranges. On the negative side, 23% of 16-25 year olds, and 22% of 26-34 year olds participate in formal volunteering activities at least once a month, less than any other age group.

This might not augur well for community organisations in the decades to come, and how to attract new volunteers is likely to become a more pressing concern in future. At a time when political parties are keen to involve the voluntary sector in the provision of services, it would be ironic if they lost the ability to respond.


Jennie said...

As well as the contributory factors you mention, cash rich people tend to volunteer less (counter-intuitive, but true), and Londoners are more cash-rich than the rest of us, on average.

Mark Valladares said...


I think that you're spot on. It's much easier for the wealthy to assuage their guilt by writing a cheque or using your credit card than to turn up and get their hands dirty.

That said, I'd rather they gave money than doing nothing at all...

Julian H said...

I don't think it's reasonable to assume that giving money is less 'good' than giving time. Given comparative advantage, it is probably more efficient (ie. a hedge fund manager working for an hour and donating their wages for that hour to a local charity achieves more than if s/he took the hour off work to paint a bit of a nearby youth centre's wall).

Mark Valladares said...


As I have noted above, it is self-evidently better that individuals give money than not engage at all.

However, if you are looking to engender a sense of community, it is easier to have some physical involvement from participants. There is a danger in arguing that efficiency is the key aspect in a cost-benefit analysis, as such a process only captured tangible, easily measured outcomes. Given the vast range of opportunities through which one can help one's community, the argument is more complex than you imply.

That is not so say that philanthropy is a bad thing, although philanthropy which a declared aim at least implies a sense of engagement.