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In Cornwall last week, trying anxiously to keep an eye on five teenagers in the waves, I was very grateful for the staunch presence of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. On August 19, an RNLI lifeguard rescued three little girls who were drifting out to sea on bodyboards. And a family called Barnes, four of whom were off-duty lifeguards, have just saved three swimmers close to where we were on holiday.
In our case, there was no drama. We packed up when the lifeguards ended their day, and my credentials in loco parentis remain unblemished. But I was surprised, on talking to a friend, that she thought the lifeboats were just another public service. In fact, the RNLI relies almost entirely on charitable donations. Its lifeboat crews are almost all volunteers, who train at weekends and in the evenings to be ready to spring into action whenever their pager goes off — and whose employers valiantly support them to do so.
We hardly ever hear about these people — or the millions who man other organisations such as the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, Médecins Sans Frontières or the Red Cross. Yet they are a cheering riposte to our fears that community spirit is vanishing. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam famously traced the decline of public-mindedness through the diminishing membership of churches, parent teacher associations and charities in America, in his seminal book Bowling Alone. In Britain, the think-tank Onward has charted similar declines in the social fabric. Yet Putnam’s most recent work, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, gives hope that we might yet be able to restore a golden age of civic society.
Putnam and his co-author Shaylyn Romney Garrett have taken a wider cut of history to suggest that late 19th-century America was highly individualistic, starkly unequal and fiercely polarised, rather as it is today. That changed in the first half of the 20th century, they argue, when the country became more egalitarian and more co-operative, partly thanks to pioneers in both political parties. As levels of civic do-gooding rose, social trust improved. The kind of private and voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote favourably about in his Democracy in America flourished anew. And so, perhaps, they can again.
After the pandemic, it sometimes feels as if nothing has changed; as if we are all expected to get back to partying. But there are many people who don’t feel that way at all — including those younger people who were scarred by the isolation. Covid-19 was a leveller that showed the limits to social Darwinism, and exposed a hunger for connection. In March 2020, when I was an adviser in the health department, we turned to the Royal Voluntary Service to create the NHS Volunteer Responders programme, which was almost immediately overwhelmed by people eager to help. The service is an organisation with an 80-year history of helping in local communities, but to my shame I had never heard of it. That scheme is still going — but it’s no longer “news”.
People don’t volunteer to get publicity, of course, but because they care. There are also myriad studies showing the benefits to one’s own wellbeing of helping others. But it does seem strange to me that, despite an undoubted increase in individualism, what is still a rich, complex mosaic of social enterprises and charities is so hidden. Perhaps it seems a bit old-fashioned? The US Peace Corps was founded in 1961; the International Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1863. The enormous amount of good work that is done by faith communities is often dismissed by progressives who deride religion.
When insisting that “something must be done”, people often assume that the answer is action by state agencies. But you can’t micromanage human issues from the centre. While few charities would say no to more money, many also value their autonomy. Governments rarely understand this, or know quite how to deal with such organisations, especially those that might be showing up their public counterparts.
Hospices in the UK, for example, often give much better end-of-life care than much of the NHS. But they are independent of government and are heavily reliant on fundraising from individuals, trusts and foundations (although they do receive some statutory funding from the health service and central government).
We know that having connection to others, and a sense of purpose, are powerful predictors of life satisfaction. We also know that areas with lower social trust tend to have higher crime. The concept of social capital can sound obscure, but it was well understood by late 19th-century philanthropists, who were acting in the absence of the modern welfare state.
When so many corporations churn out verbose, vacuous mission statements, there is something deeply stirring about a charity that “saves lives at sea” (the RNLI) or one which “prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies, by mobilising the power of volunteers” (the American Red Cross). Such institutions have resisted fads to focus on their critical mission — and for that we should celebrate them.