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

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:


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

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?

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