What’s Wrong With Incentives Anyway?

I thought you might be interested in reading the transcript of the short speech I gave in the debate on incentives at VE’s AGM this week:

Thank you for inviting me to join the debate today. When I first heard of RockCorps initiative of offering young people concert tickets to encourage them to do 4 hours of volunteering I initially found myself doing a very bad impression of Victor Meldrew and being somewhat annoyed. Taking a backward step I started to explore why this was.  If found that there were a number of different issues, but the only that really stood out for me was how will offering incentives to volunteer impact on the integrity of volunteering?

I think everyone’s take on this is different and given that volunteers are involved in many different areas and in many different ways, I don’t think there is an easy answer. The Compact Code of Good Practice on Volunteering describes volunteering as “an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups”.

The Compact Oxford Dictionary describes to volunteer as to “freely offer to do something”(2).  For me, the definition which comes closest to my understanding what volunteering is I came across in an article posted on the UKVPMs online forum last week. It describes volunteerism as the willingness of people to work on behalf of others without being motivated by financial or material gain.

I think it important to also recognize that people do volunteer for reasons other than the greater good, motivated for reasons of self-development, improving self-worth or gaining skills and experience in order to gain employment for example. I think these are perfectly valid reasons for volunteering as I believe that through self improvement we do something, perhaps indirectly, that benefits society.

I think part of my unease around offering incentives for volunteering is that it seems somewhat incongruous with notion of volunteering being unpaid or without financial or material gain. Can it truly be stated that you are offering your time for free if you are given a concert ticket for 4 hours of volunteering? But then, one person’s incentive is another person’s recognition award. Rockcorps consider the concert as a celebration of their volunteers achievement.

In this month’s Volunteering England’s online magazine there is an article on volunteering with the RSPB. The article makes mention that every volunteer who give 50 hours or more of their time in a year are given a Volunteer Card entitling them to 20% discount on RSPB goods in recognition of their contribution. So what is the difference between a concert ticket and a discount card? What makes one an incentive and another a recognition award? When does incentive become recognition?  Is it simply a case of an agreed commitment of time? Do we draw a line in the sand at 10 hours, 20 hours, 50 hours?

I don’t think it is as simple as that. I personally feel that 4 hours of volunteering for a concert ticket, whether you consider it an incentive, celebration or recognition, somewhat devalues the value of recognition and would feel more comfortable it was in recognition of say 20 hours. I have no logic to base this on. It’s just something that I feel is about right. It doesn’t mean I’m right though or invalidates what Rockcorps are doing.

I understand the reasons behind Rockcorps incentives and the appeal of them. I think it would be disingenuous, cynical and wrong of me at state that the many thousands of young people who have volunteered through Rockcorps have volunteered simply for a concert ticket. My hope also is and I have no evidence to doubt, that the 35% who Rockcorps have re-volunteered within a year have done so for the greater good.

I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong in offering incentives to volunteer, however, I think we as a sector need to look very carefully at how incentives might impact on the integrity of volunteering. Do we run the risk of disenfranchising the vast majority of people who volunteer freely, without financial or material gain?

Do we also run the risk of creating a culture where people’s primary reason for volunteering is the incentive itself rather than doing something to benefit the environment, society or for self-development?

I can’t help but feel hollow inside if the answer to those two questions were yes. Thank you.

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Post by Sean Cobley

6 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Incentives Anyway?

  1. “I think it would be disingenuous, cynical and wrong of me at state that the many thousands of young people who have volunteered through Rockcorps have volunteered simply for a concert ticket.”

    Even if that had just volunteered for a concert ticket, I’m unclear from reading this how that would mean they’d achieved any less for the organisation or for themselves?

    There’s plenty of bad volunteering opportunities that run pretty close to exploiting the volunteers involved. I think that remains the key challenge for the integrity of volunteering, not whether or not someone is thanked in a way that’s appropriate for them.

    “Do we run the risk of disenfranchising the vast majority of people who volunteer freely, without financial or material gain?”

    This point is completely lost me, I’m afraid. Are you saying that people who were about to volunteer due to a wish to help their community or a particular charity or group are going to be deprived of their right to volunteer? Or are you saying that adding an incentive will attract so many new volunteers that the voice of common volunteers will be silenced?

    I don’t see how incentives would make this happen, quite the opposite in fact. By creating a clearly defined agreement with a volunteer of what they can expect in return for their volunteering I think you’re actually creating a much stronger position for the volunteer, especially if the volunteering fails to deliver as promised (either because of the incentive or the role itself).

    Perhaps many of the fears around incentives that volunteer managers feel aren’t really to do with some mythical idea of altruism or the sacred meaning of volunteering. Could it be more to do with volunteers actually being in a position to demand real value in return for their time – whatever form that takes.

    You thought it was gold but it was bronze

  2. I absoloutley agree that volunteers should demand real value in return for their time.  I think they should be able to see how they are making a difference, should recieve training and build their skills, and should feel like they have a voice within the organisations they give time to.  I also have no problem with volunteers giving time in order to benefit themselves.  I've supported many people who have wanted to volunteer to get a reference, or something to put on their CV.  What I do have a problem with is the contactual relationship set up by offering something of monetary value.  Because volunteers do not work under contract, volunteering can be flexible.  People can dip in and out of it, take time out when they want to, negotatite over their role, etc.  Yes, I do see that the downside of this informality is that sometimes volunteers time is not well used and they are mismanaged, but I think the upside is that volunteering is a very different experience to being a paid worker.  The minute we start saying "volunteer in this role for two weeks and we'll give you a £20 concert ticket" we lose this flexibity (not to mention legally creating  a contact and making the idividual a 'worker'), and I'm not sure that's good for the volunteer. By introducing a benefit with a cash value, we lose flexibilty and start turning people from volunteers into low-paid workers.

  3. I would agree in the main with Kate’s comments and only wish to add, and/or reiterate that there is a legal consideration here, in that where there is seen to be “mutuality of obligation” between org and volunteer, i.e. you are obliged to do this and your “pay” will be this, over and above legitimate expenses, it can be seen in employment law as being contractual; the law in relation to employment works on inference in relation to a person claiming that they are employed rather than volunteering.
    I predict it will not be long before this is tested in the courts, under employment law, and would not like to be part of the organisation that has such a “contract” in place, with a “volunteer” as I feel they well get their fingers severely burnt.

  4. I think we run the real risk of getting all wrapped up in ourselves and forgetting what does the ordinary person see. Is there a real noticeable difference (legal or otherwise) between the incentives for the person on the street between a concert ticket and chocolates on your birthday, a book voucher, a celebratory party, watching a gig as part of being a volunteer steward, getting a better job worth extra £000s per year because volunteering has improved the CV etc etc? I don't think there is, and yet for many of us in the sector there is a need to draw a line in the sand. The line I think is actually around re-defining or rather re-emphasising what is and is not volunteering. Over the last few years I think we've seen a real blurring as to the definition of volunteering, which by its very nature is pretty flexible anyway, so that community engagement and volunteering have become almost inter-changeable terms. For me, the Rockcorps initiative is an exciting and innovative way of engaging young people in the community which may encourage volunteerng, and good on them, but it's not volunteering.In addition we have the v 'favours' campaign based on their research that young people don't respond to volunteering.We need to reclaim 'volunteering' and make it clear to everyone how exciting and varied volunteering is and can be, so that we don't need such blatent incentives as concert tickets to encourage people to be involved or be embarrassed about the 'v' word.

  5. Thanks for your comments Jim.

    With regards to your first question, my point was their motivation for volunteering, not that they’d achieved any less for the organisation. If asked, I’m sure they would have said that they were motivated by the desire to help rather than the incentive.

    With regards to your second question, in my experience, many people who volunteer are apathetic or very much against money being spent on thanking or rewarding them for their support. A verbal or written thank you is usually all they want. I wonder that such people might be less inclined to support an organisation that they would see as wasting money on incentives for volunteering rather than being put it towards the organisation’s cause.

    Perhaps we should redefine what volunteering is and delete the reference to it being ‘unpaid’! I am however of the ‘old school’ as seeing volunteering about giving something back and being unpaid, though I don’t think I’ve ever believed in the mythical idea of altruism.

    To look at this from another direction – why do we involve volunteers? – does this change the perspective? My very basic answer to that first question is ‘to help us do more.’ If it is legal and ethical, does it really matter how we involve unpaid people, whether that be traditional volunteering, internships, ESV/CSR, work experience or through incentivising? Now there’s a debate!

    Thanks again Jim.

    P.S. I am intrigued by your definition of a common volunteer!

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