Our universities shouldn’t allow “social enterprises” to attend volunteering fairs. | Thoughts after an encounter with a suspect company looking for free labour from my fellow students.

The UPSU volunteering fair is a great event at the start of each academic year that allows new and returning students to volunteer their spare time to various organisations. The diversity of opportunities students can take up ranges from conservation work, caring for the elderly or disabled, youth advocacy, working in an aquarium or raising money for charity and plenty more. It’s also a great way to get some extra experience on your CV if you plan on going into a particularly competitive field after you finish your degree.

Charity is one of the ways we can look after the vulnerable members of our society or combat tendencies towards environmental devastation that are often a direct result of capitalism, so while I disagree with how they exist currently, I would strongly encourage all those who are able to donate some of their time to do so… But choose wisely!

At this year’s volunteering fair, although they may have been present in previous years, I noticed one organisation that stood out above the rest. Not because of how great their work is, but because I was disgusted by what this organisation purportedly was.

The Real Ideas Organisation attended the fair and looking at their website, you’d be led to believe they are a good company, providing real opportunities so it shocked me to learn why they were here. They seem to be a social enterprise meaning they aim to produce “social profits” rather than acting like a typical business but what they were offering Plymouth students seemed predatory to me- especially when considering plenty of similar opportunities were available from much more reputable companies.

Their offer was this: come do volunteer gardening on our private gardens which members of the public then pay to enter. OK, so this seems fair enough, they probably have overheads (I was curious as to how high the salaries of the happy faces on their website and representative were though) but I’ll ask out of curiosity what the money goes to and if they produce a “surplus” (profit in the charity business). Their representative, who was very polite despite my fairly vocal disapproval, replied yes but that the surplus must be re-invested into the community. I responded that a good way to do so would be to pay their workers who would be better suited volunteering for an organisation like the national trust. She couldn’t, possibly wouldn’t, give me a straight answer to the question of whether any of the surplus they made ended up in any private individual(s)’s pockets so I repeated my disapproval and left feeling quite annoyed that the student union had invited a social enterprise rather than an actual charity.

Of course, maybe their representative did a terrible job at explaining what RIO does but it seemed to me that they were there to prey on the naivety of students with good intentions- they were simply after some free labour. If this is the case, I think the SU should in future stop inviting this particular company and I think we should all be more wary of “social enterprises”, which I have a feeling we are going to see a lot more of in future.

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