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I am not going to play by your rules! The ‘value’ of Volunteering

October 20, 2014

Volunteering Blog 2

There are many organisations mainly in the voluntary sector that have a tremendous story to tell about what volunteers can achieve – and many need funding in order to sustain and develop this further.

In my previous blog I described the excellent work of 6 organisations and outlined some of the strategies that they have used to make the case for funding.

I think that the challenge we face is that in England we live in a state that is increasingly marketised and centralised.


In the marketing paradigm the route to securing funding from the state is an apparently rational one – its something like this:

  • Demonstrate that there is an unmet need that has a cost on society
  • Show how you can meet it – and quantify how much this will cost
  • Evidence that savings can be generated
  • Prove that your option is cheaper than any alternative


The UK is one of the most centralised western states. In order to be able to function government and its proxies (Public Health England, NHS England etc) need information that can assure them that public money is being well spent and issues of concern are being resolved.

Here is part of an infographic produced by the Centre for Cities based on information from the OECD contained in their report Cities Outlook 2014

Cities have little control over their own money

Because government and its agencies are so centralised they require a range of metrics that bring local experience closer to them – so we have developed a complex series of standard indicators (Outcome Frameworks, QALYs, QIPP etc) that all serve to provide information to these centralised agencies.

These measures – that we sometimes think demonstrate our technical sophistication at keeping track of population wellbeing can also be seen as showing just how centralised we have become!

What about volunteering?

I think that these two systems (the market and the centralised state) and their need for metrics are antithetical to the premise on which volunteering is based.

Volunteering often arises to meet need where there are no services or where there is a gap in services. Indeed, volunteering often develops in places that officials thought did not exist – and therefore did not fund. This is because these spaces had not been measured before or could not be satisfactorily measured because of their complexity and multi-causality.

For example, a lot of volunteering is concerned with the the relationship between the individual and society or between the individual and other services. Of course just because these areas cannot be easily measured does not mean that they are unimportant – far from it – our connection with the state and other people is crucial to our wellbeing – as some of the excellent national work on loneliness demonstrates.

An example of this multi-dimension benefit of volunteering to volunteers and wider society is set out here in this useful report from Citizens advice that came out last year.

Can we have some funding please?

The problem arises when organisations who provide volunteers are asked to justify their case for public funding. They find that they have to do so using a set of arguments that are designed to determine value in a market place or provide reassurance of impact to a centrally led government agency.

My point is that we – citizens who volunteer – do not go into this gift relationship (for that is what volunteering is) because we want to secure market position, generate savings or meet government targets – we do it because we wish to give our time and skill to help people and generally the only evidence of success we require is what the people who receive support from this volunteering feel and say.

So, while there is policy ambition and rhetoric for increasing volunteering – as long as we continue to try to measure and justify it using models that are about just about market value or government ‘outcomes’ volunteering will struggle to get funded – or risk becoming a commodity.

There is a real risk that this will actually lead to a less innovative, more ossified and less diverse system of delivery and  the contribution that volunteering makes to civic engagement and cohesion will be weakened.

Of course some of the work that is going on at present with regard to implementation of the Social Value Act may offer part of the solution – as part of this I think that there is an urgent need to look again at the respective roles of grants and co-produced service design to ensure that local commissioners are enabled to take a balanced approach when determining which model works best for them.

What do you think?

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2014 11:56

    Private sector actions that substitute for government action undermine long term solutions and support he dominant at least 2 ways. They reduce pressure on governments to do what they should do and they undermine the global critique of capitalism’s failures.

    • October 22, 2014 12:49

      Thanks for the comment – when you say ‘private sector’ I assume you mean voluntary or not for profit sector. While I understand your analysis I am afraid that I do not agree with it. As citizens in western democracies (I mention this because they are the only ones I have direct experience of) I think that we need to engage with and push local democratic systems. I think that for some people this is through as volunteers. I think it is only by making demands and having high expectations that we expose the limits of local and national governments and can challenge them. I realise that this engagement brings its own tensions not least the risk of becoming incorporated into the government system we are trying to challenge!

  2. Jane South permalink
    October 23, 2014 16:50

    Great blog – says it all. The more we listen to experiences of volunteers, and the grassroots community projects that support them, the more I think that the ‘rules of the game’ need changing radically. The current system whether it be around commissioning, research, strategy or performance management, values the wrong things when it tries to understand the citizen contribution (including volunteering). It needs that system thinking to articulate what a citizen-centred health system would look like and then work from there rather than trying to control everything as if it was a formal service.

  3. Lorna Prescott permalink
    December 4, 2014 10:22

    Hi Mark

    Great points about the risk and worries of commodification of volunteering. Your post made me think of a couple of things. The first thing I started wondering about was how what you are saying connects with (or perhaps is in tension with) Edgar Cahn’s thinking on co-production – e.g. core values of an asset perspective, redefining work, reciprocity and social capital (

    The other thing I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the difference between the various sorts of volunteering and giving I did for 25 years (from helping out at charity shops to being a trustee or school a governor) to the kinds of things I enjoy doing now like sharing skills and knowledge at a social media surgery. The former, and some of the volunteering you make reference to, sits within a vertical, hierarchical system with clear organisational boundaries and associated helpful organisational protection and support for volunteers (see Eileen Conn’s work re vertical, hierarchical and horizontal, peer systems Social Media Surgeries, Trade Schools and a whole growing array of peer-to-peer platforms invite a different sort of interaction, which isn’t about volunteering in a charitable sense, and yet again feels very different to that very informal sort of volunteering where you help out a vulnerable neighbour.

    This thinking by Tessy Britton about participatory paradigms intrigued me when I first read it, and I have since found myself both participating in the Creative Collaborative paradigm, and doing work to create the conditions for more people to do that. Thus I’m wondering if we should be thinking more widely than ‘systems of delivery’ and including platforms for collaboration, and more widely than the ‘contribution that volunteering makes’ to a broader consideration of new forms of participation. Though of course sometimes we will want to take a slice of that, e.g. volunteering, and look at it under the microscope.

    Finally (another thought occurred as I was writing this!) I found this short post by Indy Johar really helpful in seeing the world in a different way: I think this is a bit relevant to your post, though maybe not entirely. Amongst other things Indy says: “The labelling of the morality of a corporate is increasingly more complex than the simplistic “For Profit/Not for Profit” tabloid debate and we are need to move beyond this industrial simplicity.”


  1. The Voluntary Sector makes little contribution to wellbeing | Local Democracy and Health

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