Noel Ahern TD
Minister of State,
Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Thank you all for coming here this evening to the launch of an important package of measures to promote and support the development of volunteering in Ireland. Many thanks to the Homeless Advice Unit for allowing us to use their facilities and to Volunteer Centres Ireland and Tallaght Volunteer Bureau, in particular Tricia Nolan for organising the event.
Voluntary activity is accepted as a significant component of a healthy democratic society. Its work is seen in many areas in dealing with local and community development, disadvantage, disability and sport to name but a few. Even in a growing economy where standards of living have and continue to improve, volunteering activity is a necessary part of building and strengthening communities and of promoting the bonds between communities that go to make up the nation.
While there are concerns at the drop in the numbers involved in volunteering in recent times, responses to events such as the Special Olympics and the Tsunami disaster would support a view that the desire to be of service and to come together for the good of others is still strong in our society. We may, however, need to find new ways to encourage and support voluntary activity and unlock the social benefits, such as strengthening citizenship, that volunteering brings.
In recent times we have had the benefit of a number of reports in developing our thinking on the appropriate interface by the state with volunteers and volunteering groups. The White Paper on Supporting Voluntary Activity was published in September 2000.Tipping the Balance was a response by the voluntary sector to the White Paper. Although not a published document, my Department has had the benefit of the thinking of the Implementation Advisory Group on the Tipping the Balance report. Finally the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs recently launched its report entitled Volunteers and Volunteering in Ireland, which distilled, focussed and prioritised much of the thinking represented in the earlier documents, and provided a special focus for the package of measures that I am initiating today.
Our policies on volunteering must go to the very heart of our vision of how Irish society should develop over the coming years. On the one hand we have communities that need support now in order to get their fair share of our burgeoning economy. On the other, in the context of economic growth, there are an increasing number of communities in which few people live during the working day and where people are often too tired in the evenings to come together to take part in the host of voluntary activities that go to make up a community.
Unless volunteering can be promoted and strengthened we run the risk of seeing an increasing number of communities where people do not come together as neighbours, as parents, as fellow citizens to work together, address common interests, to play together and even to sing together. The ultimate outcome of a policy on volunteering is to inspire people to participate in the development of their communities and by putting the necessary supports in place to turn that inspiration into action.
The experience of all associated with voluntary activity, including both volunteers and beneficiaries, is enriched at a personal, family community and national level. It goes without saying, therefore that the development of comprehensive policy is a vital but complex undertaking. Ideally the policy should develop naturally between the State and communities. Accordingly immediate measures are necessary to strengthen and promote volunteering now to create the space for us to develop an all-embracing national policy.
I should stress that a key principle underpinning the initiatives which I am announcing this evening is one of recognising that volunteering finds meaning and expression at local level and that supports and funding should to the greatest extent seek to reflect and respect this reality. My focus therefore tends towards local and practical rather than grand institutional measures:
Turning to the specifics in respect of the existing volunteering infrastructure, my Department already provides direct annual funding to the Tallaght Volunteer Bureau and Volunteering Ireland. Both are members of Volunteer Centres Ireland, which as you know, is a network established to cooperate on any issues which relate to best practice in the operation of volunteer centres.
The other members of the Network are
Newbridge Volunteer Bureau;
Bray Volunteer Bureau;
Tralee Volunteer Bureau;
Cork Volunteer Bureau;
Ballyfermot Volunteer Bureau;
Drogheda Volunteer Centre.
I believe that the Volunteers Centres Network and the bureaux that go to make up the Network constitute a valuable infrastructure on which to build for the future. Accordingly, I intend on a pilot basis for the next three years to:
-maintain the funding at current levels to the Tallaght Volunteer Bureau, and Volunteering Ireland (respectively €131,000 and €147,000 annually)
-provide additional funding – up to €300,000 available so as support the six of the other seven members of the network in order to develop and strengthen their respective roles in promoting volunteering to the general public, and providing a placement service for volunteers. Subject to standard conditions attaching to the expenditure of public money this will mean that up to €50,000 per annum will be available to each volunteer bureau.
I should say that Fingal Co. Council directly promote and fund volunteers and volunteering through their Community, Culture and Sports Department. Looking ahead, in the context of deepening their capability and competence in the community it is proposed to encourage other local to take the lead offered by Fingal Co. Council and invest resources in volunteering.
In return for the funding proposed we would expect the other bureaux to provide similar services to, for example, Tallaght Volunteer Bureau, in their local areas. We would also expect them to develop general practices and principles as members of Volunteer Centres Ireland.
The effectiveness of this measure will be reviewed during the third year of funding.
In order to put Volunteer Centres Ireland in a position to play a proactive central role in facilitating and supporting the development of the network of local volunteer bureaux, I am making annual funding of €50,000 available (again subject to standard conditions) to Volunteer Centres Ireland for the purpose of employing a Development Officer. Definite tasks for the development officer will include:
-development, in consultation with various players across the sector, of a code of practice for volunteers and volunteering. An authoritive code of practice will be a significant enhancement of our volunteering infrastructure.
-development of up to date statistics on volunteering from existing databases. There have been some calls for new research on the sector. However, there is a view, which I share, that considerable useful up to date information on volunteering already exists at local/ bureau level. Rather than commit significant funding at this juncture to new research programmes, I believe that the development officer might seek to develop this information into useful local and national statistics.
Turning to the development of a volunteering infrastructure nationally, there is already in existence an extensive network of local and community development agencies funded by the state. Some Local Area Partnership Companies, Community Partnerships and Community Development Projects already through their operations act as a catalyst for the encouragement and promotion of volunteering. My intention now is to formalise this role. To this end, €500,000 of local area partnership funding is being ring-fenced for measures that encourage volunteers and volunteering. Each local area partnership company, if they are not doing so already, will be asked to develop measures at a local level. Measures that involve more than one local or community agency will be particularly welcomed.
In addition, the promotion of volunteering generally is an essential part of building up our volunteering infrastructure. The Joint Oireachtas Committee Report recommended that a national awareness campaign be initiated. My view is that this can best be done at a local level on a cross agency basis. I am, therefore, ring-fencing €500,000 of the Cohesion Fund (which was established on foot of a Government decision arising from the tri-Ministerial review of local and community development structures) for measures that will promote volunteers and volunteering locally.
Under this arrangement, proposals will be co-ordinated by city and county development boards.
I believe that these two measures underline our commitment to developing volunteering infrastructure at a local level.
It goes without saying that, if volunteering is to have a future, steps to foster a culture of support for volunteering in schools and third level institutions need to be taken immediately.
Two initiatives in this area are underway. The Young Social Innovators Initiative involves transition year students at Secondary School level from all over Ireland in identifying social needs and in developing strategies to address them, requiring their engagement with local, community and statutory organisations. The key objective is to develop Volunteering among young people and grow a cadre of volunteers for the future. I believe that this initiative, encouraging second level students to take up voluntary activity, addresses an essential element of a policy on volunteering into the future. Accordingly, my Department will take the opportunity provided by this initiative to advance volunteering by supporting the Annual Showcase Awards (€75,000) and by providing a contribution towards medium term core funding of the Initiative (€125,000). This funding will be made available on a pilot basis for three years.
Turning to third level, the DIT Community Learning Programme is an example of a new teaching method called service-learning, which works by integrating classroom learning in any subject with suitable volunteering activity. The programme has been in development in DIT since 2001 when 12 students were involved; in 2004, 65 students were involved. Students have carried out a wide variety of volunteering projects. In order to put the Community Learning Programme on a sustainable footing, my Department will support the Programme as a pilot project to be assessed as a possible model for Irish third level education. In this regard €110,000 per annum will be allocated to this programme, which will, inter alia, fund a development officer and an evaluator for the development of the programme in DIT. Ultimately the objective is to encourage the expansion of the programme to a significant number of other third level colleges over a period of years. The effectiveness of the Departmental funding will be assessed within three years.
I hope that you will agree that this package of measures which amounts to just under €2m. annually is sufficient to develop and strengthen volunteering in Ireland as we develop an all-embracing national policy together. I hope that those of you directly involved in volunteering initiative will see the package of a strong statement of support to carry the practical work forward while a national policy on volunteering is being developed.
Thank you all.