Mean and marginalised – why we are only nibbling at the edges of altruism


The future health of our society will be significantly influenced by whether ordinary citizens demonstrate greater altruism through volunteering and philanthropy. We need such kindness to increase the resources available to meet social need but also because research suggests that a society that collectively gives more back is likely to be more cohesive and contented. The last Labour Government took various initiatives to boost giving time and money and such signs of social responsibility are central to what the Coalition Government used to refer to as the Big Society. But two recent reports show just how far we have still to go to create a culture of altruism.

There are two key headlines from a fascinating research report on giving produced by New Philanthropy Capital:

- Even among those who regularly donate money only a minority think there should be an expectation that everyone who has the means should give.

- A major impediment to giving is a lack of rigor and communication from charities on the impact of their work and thus the impact of giving.

(If I have read it correctly, the report also confirms that proportionately the rich give much less of their income than the less well-off. This fact is supressed in favour of the much less illuminating one that the rich give more in absolute terms. Presumably the authors didn’t particularly want the headline to be ‘NPC bomb shell: UK rich as tight as camel’s arse in a sandstorm’).

As I have argued in a series of posts on the care crisis in Britain, expanding society’s voluntary contribution is vital to meeting future needs as this is the only source of care which could be grown without significant drawbacks. Last week saw a substantial and well researched report from The Kings Fund on volunteering in health and social care. I say ‘well researched’ but even after all the fine words from various Governments it still turns out that getting a handle on the scale of volunteering is like trying to locate a black cat in a coal hole. Based on simple extrapolation from the last National Citizenship Survey (now replaced by a much less robust set of measures), the authors estimate that three million people regularly volunteer in the health and social care domain, which is roughly equivalent to the work force and about two thirds as many people as provide informal care to family members.

The three key points from Kings Fund document are:

- Overall, and particularly in those institutions which take it seriously, volunteering can make a significant impact on the quality and effectiveness of care, indeed in some areas volunteers add something which is unlikely to be available from paid professionals.

- Yet, in most policies, sectors and institutions there continues to be a failure to develop a strategic approach to volunteering.

- This lack of grip is particularly problematic now as the combination of health reform and the public sector spending squeeze - while making volunteering more important and possibly attractive - also poses major threats to volunteer motivation (for example, volunteers do not want to feel they are being used to fill gaps created by cuts and they are ambivalent about volunteering in the private sector). Government ministers may bang on about  volunteering (perhaps in the hope of a nice ‘phone call from Downing  Street) but there is little evidence of a concern for it informing their core reform agenda.

While the report’s recommendations are somewhat predictable and technocratic (more strategy, more data, more co-ordination), my eye was caught by this short section hidden away in the middle of the paper:


The complexity of the debate about role substitution is heightened further by the fact that in some areas of care, there is a case for questioning whether professionally led services always deliver the best outcomes for service users and their communities. For example, there is increasing evidence on the effectiveness of peer support in mental health, long-term conditions such as diabetes and for promoting healthy behaviours. Some of our research participants argued that what is needed is a process of radical de-professionalisation, with a central role for volunteers…Changing the composition of the health and social care workforce in this way would be a long-term undertaking and would at times be a source of contention.

The last clause is almost certainly an under-statement, but the question hovers: can volunteering ever fulfil its potential to bring a step change to the ethos and quality of care as long as it is not only marginalised but also seen – almost by definition – as having a subordinate role and status in comparison to the contribution of paid professionals?

Greater altruism is vital and would help build better lives in a better society. But to achieve the necessary step change means profound changes in social norms (starting with the rich), a transformation in the effectiveness and candour of the third sector, and a radical departure from the bureaucratic/professional/commercial culture of our public services.

Such a manifesto poses challenges to all ideological starting points which is probably why the debate sponsored by ministers managers and third sector leaders generally stays in the safe territory of one-off initiatives and warm words.

PS The RSA is encouraging philanthropy among our own Fellows (although you don’t need to be a Fellow to give). We are acting on the advice that donors want to know where there money is going and for what purpose. If you want to know more about our student enrichment fund you can find out here.

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