Volunteering is a vital resource for society and an important source of satisfaction and meaning in many people’s lives. Perhaps it is a reflection of the nature of volunteering but the way we think about it as a system tends to be rather ad hoc and under-conceptualised. Yet the modes, norms and values of volunteering also make up a system which can both challenge and enhance the working of the market and the state providing a more pluralistic and humanistic way of thinking about the good life and the good society.
A few weeks ago the Local Government Association made the suggestion that people who volunteer to help run and provide community services like libraries and leisure centres should get a £100 rebate from their council tax. The proposal can be criticised from opposite points of view – either that rewards go against the very idea of volunteering or that the incentive is far too small to make a difference to motivation and volunteer recruitment.
A United Nations paper published in 2001, largely based on work by Justin Davies Smith, then Director of the Institute for Volunteering Research, explored different criteria used to define a volunteer. The first is indeed reward with views ranging from the purist that there must be no material incentive to the view that any reward is OK as long as it is below the market rate.
Next is the issue of free will. Some examples of volunteering have a compulsory feel, for example, school based systems in the US where pupils have to clock up a certain number of hours. We don’t count mandatory unpaid work activity undertaken by benefit claimants as volunteering even though much of it is classic volunteer activity such as serving in charity shops. This is also one of the reasons for controversy about the growth of unpaid internships where the rewards - such as they are – look like volunteer rations but the discipline expected of interns is more or less the same as paid employees.
A third criterion concerns the beneficiary. We don’t generally consider an activity as volunteering if the main beneficiary is family or close friends. This is a key issue in relation to caring. Despite the huge aggregate savings to the public purse which result from it, unpaid familial caring is seen as a loving burden, not a civic act of volunteering. But wouldn’t it be good for the status of carers if we saw them as volunteers for the general good as well as loving relatives? And is the boundary clear or rational: does it make sense that a lifelong neighbour who cares is a volunteer but a nephew or niece who chooses to take on a caring responsibility for a previously remote aunt or uncle is just doing their duty?
A fourth criterion concerns organisational setting. We have long since passed the point at which volunteering was not considered appropriate in relation to core public services. Estimates suggest that getting on for 1 in 8 public libraries are now volunteer-run with the whole library service being largely a voluntary effort in some English counties Volunteering for private sector organisations may seem counter intuitive and the idea that volunteers help make profits is frowned upon. However more and more corporations sponsor volunteer activities from which, whatever their warm words about corporate responsibility, they presumably aim to boost their brand value.
A final and, in my view, increasingly important issue concerns the level of commitment (to which I would add responsibility). Here again there is huge diversity from virtually effortless clicktivism (does this even count as volunteering?) to the huge often statutory responsibilities being the chair of a school governing body or major charitable organisation. People in the latter roles may, despite the voluntary nature of their engagement, be considered fair game for public censure for underperformance, prejudice or negligence.
Typologies are all very well but what is to be done with this complex picture? I am not arguing for neatness, much less for regulation (as the aforementioned Davis Smith argued in response to the LGA initiative, the problem with organised schemes is the scope they create for red tape and disputation). But a more systematic approach to the way we think about volunteering activities might help all of us involved in promoting volunteering to ask better questions and be more consistent, fair and open in our approach. The failure to recognise the civic contribution of familial carers and the resistance to giving some kind of material recognition to the contribution made by people taking on activities with high degrees of public accountability are two examples, in my view, of unclear thinking.
This blog post aims to start not win a debate, but one idea worth considering might be a ready reckoner which puts the demands and expectations of volunteering on one side and the incentives, rewards and support on the other. The former might include time and difficulty, length of commitment and level of responsibility, while the latter would include scope for personal development, material rewards and social recognition. Such a formula might help encourage a more systematic approach to thinking through the structure of expectations and rewards for new forms of volunteering and would identify some existing forms which, on the face of it, seem to offer a ‘good’ deal and others that are less so.
From the perspective of the volunteer, volunteering always will and always should be driven by the heart as much as the head. The potential advantages of a more robust and broadly applied conceptual framework are not only help for those designing and managing volunteering schemes but, more importantly, that the social-economics of volunteering could provide a more powerful alternative paradigm to the highly developed market economics of paid employment.
A return to the past seems implausible. Exhausted as we are, a dash to the future seems unlikely. Nonetheless, however weary, we cannot stay rooted to this moment.