voluntary arts ireland

Monday, 28 February 2011

Big Community

Following the launch of the European Year of Volunteering in Ireland, Voluntary Arts Ireland along with partners the Gaelic Athletics Association, the Church of Ireland, City Church Belfast and the Department of Social Development took over the Long Gallery in Stormont, Belfast last Friday, 25th February 2011 to celebrate our joint volunteering project. Two years on the go the project highlights the impact that sports, arts and faith-based groups have in making communities better and bigger places

Big Community was the phrase that stood out to us all - volunteering makes communities bigger and across our society which is looking for a way to share the future, engaging people voluntarily through the various disciplines that make up the fabric of society seems crucial.

"Volunteering's not important - it's essential" said Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts. Sentiments echoed by Minister Alex Attwood MLA who talked about volunteering reflecting the best of society.

The contribution by keynote speaker Peter Jenkinson, OBE was provocative - encouraging us all to be "promiscuous" and to "make friends with strange people" - and highlighting the trend towards DIY/Open Source voluntary action that most recently has affected enormous positive change in Egypt.

The event was genuinely stimulating and threw up a number of challenges around how and what we measure as the benefits of volunteering. Rather than falling into the age old argument around how you measure the value of something that has a multitude of intangible benefits, there was a grown up discussion about focussing on outcomes and shifting our measuring mechanisms to accommodate the more intangible.

Another exciting thought was how the four partner organisations, coming from very different places could create a programme together and build on this very unusual connection. Perhaps taking up Peter Jenkinson's challenge of making friends with strange people is a potential starting point for many new innovations. As Einsein said  - "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them"- perhaps we also need to shift our thinking by regularly going outside of our normal connections and relationships.

Perhaps also this is what a big community is - not necessarily big in size, but a big space, an accommodating space, a safe space for us to come in and out of, a space to be creative in.

In the best democratic traditions we also voted on a number of questions at the celebration in Stormont - not sure if the results were particularly surprising but the questions did force us to think - never a bad thing. To check out how we voted visit http://bit.ly/hLnn6q.

Kevin Murphy

Monday, 14 February 2011

Sure that's not really volunteering, is it?

The recent launch of the European Year of Volunteering 2011 in Ireland was an example of how, in the face of very significant challenges both economically and socially, that the state, voluntary and community sector and the private sector can come together for the common good.

Hosted in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham by the dynamic Volunteering Ireland, led by Elaine Bradley the event involved the President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, Minister Pat Carey from the Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Minister Alex Attwood from the Department of Social Development in Northern Ireland and Eamonn Sinnott of Intel Ireland - who sponsored the event.

Not only a great event with lots of involving performances from a range of groups and some stirring speeches, but an event that acted as a call to action for all involved in this year of volunteering.

It also brought into focus Voluntary Arts Ireland's joint event with the GAA, the Church of Ireland and City Church on Friday 25th February in the Long Gallery, Stormont, Belfast. Mild panic as lead organisers as the date quickly approaches and a nod towards what our contribution might be in this year. One of the key elements of the Living Together : Giving Together celebration event in Stormont is how we encourage people to think about volunteering.

One of the difficult concepts to get across in the traditional world of volunteering is the concept of cultural volunteering - the idea that people coming together to create arts and crafts in a voluntary setting for the benefit of their own and society's cultural enrichment. Sure thats not really volunteering, is it? Perhaps  because in the world of the arts we tend to call it participation, this voluntary action is not viewed as volunteering? It is certainly true that those who participate voluntarily don't view themselves as volunteers.

So it may be that the distinction between volunteering and cultural volunteering or participation is important but it is interesting to look at how similar the benefits to individuals and society are when we look at them side by side:

Benefits of Volunteering 
paraphrased from Volunteer Now website
Enjoyment, pleasure
Meet new friends
Help others and make a difference
Personal development
Improve your health
Be part of something bigger – connect to your community

Benefits of participating in the Arts 
taken from Rand Corporation Gifts of the Muse
Development of learning skills
Development of positive attitudes and behaviours
Improve your health
Develop social bonds – sense of community identity – build community capacity
Contribute to the economy
Captivation and pleasure
Emotional and cognitive growth

The Living Together : Giving Together event will explore this concept and the impact voluntary participation in sports and faith-based groups make. We will also pose some provocative questions which those attending will be able to vote on:

  • We don’t need to invest in volunteering, do we? It’s freely given and costs nothing 
  • We are not competing for volunteers; we need to be making partnerships in unexpected places
  • In present times of greater social and economic need, volunteering can only scratch the surface.
We would love to hear your take on any of these questions - so feel free to comment or follow the threads through our facebook and twitter feeds. Full details of the speakers for the event is at http://www.vaireland.org/cgi-bin/website.cgi?tier1=ireland&tier2=volunteering%20in%20sports,%20arts%20and%20faith-based%20organisations&fp=true

In the meantime congratulations to all involved in the recent launch of EYV2011 and we look forward to a great year of volunteering.

Kevin Murphy

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Power of Play

A recent article in the RSA Journal sports writer David Goldblatt talked of the potential of sporting clubs to make a real difference to the life of local communities. He wasn't talking about the professional clubs such as the Manchester Uniteds of the world but rather the primarily Victorian legacy of the club as a "mutual association of individuals who above all want to play and participate, rather than consume, make money or accumulate power".

He talks of the development of clubs such as AFC Wimbledon, formed in 2002 by fans appalled by the the move of Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes. Now AFC Wimbledon, still owned and run by its members is on the threshold of entering the Football League. Goldblatt also asks the question:

"If clubs are capable of mobilising citizens' energies for the benefit of common projects, can they do more than just put a team out on Saturday?"

In other words can they contribute to wider social activism? Can they use the power of play to engage citizens in projects that benefit the wider community?

Central to this is the idea of supporting common ownership and the transfer of relevant assets from state to society - for example in the case of football the transfer of playing fields - so that local communities can run them with and for their citizens.

Another legacy of the Victorian era is the voluntary and amateur arts club. This legacy still exists across the island of Ireland with 100,000s of people getting together to create art and craft every week in their communities. Voluntarily and collectively run by their members they account for the vast majority of arts participation and attendance at arts events across the country.

However, can they do more than just run their weekly and seasonal activities? What if there was collective ownership of underutilised or derelict spaces that could be turned into spaces for the arts? What if professional arts venues turned over sections of their programme and venue to voluntary arts groups to run?

At the very least this would help many groups who struggle to find or afford suitable spaces in which to run their activities. It would also help space owners populate their space and generate strong community connections. And what other assets are there that would be better placed in collective ownership run for the benefit of communities rather than profit.

No doubt this form of self-organisation is on the increase as essentially the state tries to withdraw. However, this very positive move by communities to help themselves is unlikely to be enough to drive the sort of transformation that many of us would like to see.

Governments and their policies have a crucial role to play because they are creating the frameworks in which we operate. At the moment we are seeing the strongest emphasis on rebalancing the books, with a nod towards a notional increase in civic and private sector engagement to take up the slack. The risks of that approach have been well documented. In Northern Ireland they are huge, with both civil society and the private sector still struggling to get back on their feet. In the Republic of Ireland it is at this point impossible to say. A former colleague suggested that the most likely outcome of the elections on 25th February is the return of Fianna Fail, the party that has presided over the recent national crisis. As unbelievable as that might seem she could well be right.

I think the truth of the matter is that in order to transform our society into one which is driven locally by engaged citizens which then influences government policy is going to cost more money in the first instance. I think I would agree that it should result in a healthier civil society and cost the state less in the mid-long term but the idea that we can radically cut our spending and then expect this transformation to happen is flawed - and in the Irish context particularly so.

The power of play and creativity to engage people in positive activities that have personal benefits and societal benefits is real. These benefits, although often economic, are primarily for the good of society. Like anything else they require investment of time and of money.

Are our governments brave enough to make them?

Kevin Murphy