Social action

‘Heart-led, not salary-driven’ – the difference volunteering makes

by Gavin Howard

I live in Cambridge, one of the most prosperous parts of the country.  However it is also a city with startling income inequality.

Yes, there are a few entrepreneurs selling their tech companies for silly money. But there are also a huge number of households living below the poverty line and in perpetual crisis.

It is in this context that I am part of a team who run the Besom in Cambridge.  Besom enables Christians to give their time, money, skills and specific items to local people in need.

Having done this for many years, I often reflect on the many difficult situations we come across. I often ask myself, what makes the difference to the families who we help?

The best professionals

We take referrals from many different support workers who work with local families in crisis.  This is crucial to our work: we don’t go out looking for the need, professionals who know their clients bring them to our attention.

What marks out the best support workers we know?  As one of colleagues put it, they are ‘heart-led, not salary driven’.

Over the years we have encountered a number of workers like this. We see great results when we are introduced by them to families at the right time. These workers know when the right bit of help, such as decorating or gardening, or delivering a specific item of furniture, can make all the difference.

The problem

These dedicated workers are gold dust.  And our relationship with them is so precious.

But the problem is that often their employer loses its contract to support people in this way. Or there are restrictions on the way in which they can operate or on the length of time they are able to work with a certain family.

There is great frustration expressed to us by these golden support workers when they can only take people so far.

Radical difference

In December, there was a powerful ‘Dispatches’ documentary on Channel 4 called Growing Up Poor, Britain’s Breadline Kids.  It is a sad programme to watch which featured a Cambridge family, with a heroic little girl.

During the course of the programme, the mum makes a huge decision in order to save money. Like so many of our families, she seems to lack local connections and infrastructure.

It struck me that the placing of older mum figures into these households as supervised and supported volunteers would make a radical difference. An older, wiser head may have helped her question that decision.

Also, a second pair of adult hands in a household could break down some of the sense of isolation that the mum might be feeling and, yes, help her to feel loved.

What churches can do

We have prayed for years now for people to offer time as befrienders and we are, even now, optimistic that individuals in churches would rise up in this area.  I am talking about longer term, week to week, service, not just a day’s painting or gardening.  This is daunting. People are worried that they will be overwhelmed with need in these situations or that there will be safeguarding and personal protection concerns.

However, well-supported and organised group of volunteers make a world of difference.  If a pair of well-trained and equipped people from every church in the country was placed in a household for only a few hours a week, it would show radical love and could also lead to real social transformation.  If anyone is running such a scheme then I would love to hear more about it.

A challenge

It is very obvious to us in Cambridge that social care is in tatters.  Long term support and care for vulnerable people is patchy at best.  If that is what it is like in our wealthy city I can imagine that this is repeated throughout the nation.

However, the mobilising of a well-equipped army of ‘heart-led’ volunteers could help and sustain thousands of struggling households in this country. Perhaps there is a particular role for those whose own nests might be emptying but whose parenting instinct is as strong as ever?

We have just had an election where politicians promised us great social improvements. But haven’t we always had the tools to make social transformation? Now, more than ever, we need the resolve to make a difference.

Gavin Howard helps to run the Besom in Cambridge which provides a bridge between those who want to give time, money, things or skills and those who are in need.

7 thoughts on “‘Heart-led, not salary-driven’ – the difference volunteering makes”

  1. Thank you for your thought-provoking article that should lead us to action. The churches are often neglected resources who must live out the implication of the Gospel – as God reached out to us, we should reach out to others.


  2. Thanks for your blog Gavin. Totally agree with your thoughts about the need for volunteers motivated by their care and concern for local people. We run a national Christian response to loneliness and social isolation among (primarily) older people called Linking Lives UK ( I would be happy to fill you in on our work – we currently have 31 projects across the UK. Jeremy


    1. Hi Jeremy, we have met a few times. I also am part of Hope into Action. When it comes to helping struggling families I haven’t come across much being organised for volunteers on a long term basis. I am well aware of your work and I wish I could encourage it here in Cambridge but no individuals come forward to give their time in this way.


  3. Struggling with this. It feels very 19th century paternalistic, and it lets the government off the hook with a sense that, ‘they’ll never do it so we should just get on with it.’

    That’s just not true – it’s amazing how quickly people forget what a Labour government can do. Here in inner Leeds, after ten years of austerity we will soon see the results of the closure of our local Sure Start Centre as the SATS results start to decline in the primary schools. This will allow the government to blame the local authority and force the primary schools into becoming academies.

    If you really care about these people, don’t vote for the party that punished them for the sins of casino capitalists and financial fraudsters.


    1. Hi Simon, never have voted Tory, never will. Even when times were good and Sure Start was at its peak, still there were few volunteers stepping into households where money was tight and choices were few. I am less concerned about who the government is and more concerned about how we relate to each other, living very close to families in crisis but not knowing how to help. It’s not 19th century paternalism, it’s joined up 21st century maternalism we need.


  4. Hi , l volunteer for an organisation called Safe Families for Children which puts volunteers with families to support them. However it is usually only for a limited period of time . I think because of the number of needs & the number of volunteers … However when your time with the supported family is officially over , you can still keep seeing them if you feel that is appropriate.


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