Volunteering: Means to an end, or end in itself?

I’ve noticed that when we seek to understand the benefits of volunteering, we often do so in two ways: either positioning volunteering as a means to an end, or as an end in itself.

I want to just look at these two approaches and try to understand how these approaches contrast and sometimes contradict each other. But also look at how these two approaches complement each other, so that we can make the strongest possible case for volunteering whoever we’re talking to: policy makers, funders, senior managers in our organisations, or even potential volunteers.

It was a post by DJ Cronin on i-volunteer.org.uk that got me thinking on this. His post gives a bit of context, i.e. raising awareness about the personal and social benefits of volunteering and the specific responsibility of those in volunteering development and management to get out of their “cocoon and educate”.

Volunteering as a means to an end

“Volunteer is a pay rate, not a job title” – @ChanceUK

John Ramsey’s recent post on the Association of Volunteer Managers website “The conflict between want and need” made the case that it makes more sense to view volunteering as a means to an end. He uses the specific example of managing volunteers for an organisation like Age Concern:

“Volunteering is part of our ethos. However, we are not ‘about’ volunteering, we are ‘about’ the health and well-being of older people. Volunteering does of course play a crucial role in the health and well-being of older volunteers but we do not exist to provide volunteering opportunities per se.”

So, from the standpoint of an organisation, charity or movement, volunteering’s value is in how involving volunteers enables it to meet its mission.

If you think about it, this is an incredibly rational way of coming at volunteering. Volunteers are essentially a kind of mechanism performing a particular function. As a result, it follows that volunteers should have a specific role (in the same way, an organisation employs paid staff to carry out a role that helps it deliver on its mission, not because it wants to particularly offer employment).

If this is how we explain the role of volunteers, the purpose of volunteering programmes is locked on achieving clear social impacts, the more measurable and demonstrable the better. Volunteering programmes are like carefully designed instruments, enabling the organisation or group to meet their aims and objectives.

This approach offers answers to those who question the value of volunteering, by looking at the overall effectiveness of organisations involving volunteers in meeting their global aims and objectives. For instance, it’s not about numbers of volunteers or even the personal benefits to the volunteers themselves, it’s more likely about numbers (such as key performance indicators in the jargon) like the service users who’ve been served and how successfully, etc.

This approach reminds us about the costs of effectively involving volunteers, and demands that the benefits to service users outweigh the costs to the organisation of involving volunteers. For many volunteers, the social impact of their volunteering is the key driver, beyond any benefits to them personally.

I think it’s helpful to compare this rational view of volunteering, with the conventional way of understanding fundraising. A charity raises funds to help it meet its mission, not because there is some kind of intrinsic value to fundraising above and beyond the money it raises.

The problem with this approach is that when volunteers are viewed as a means to an end, their special value is often underestimated. Volunteers true value to an organisation extends well beyond the services they help deliver. It can also place pressure to value those volunteers that deliver greater amounts, much before volunteers who may deliver much smaller amounts.

A second order problem is that very often funders are not satisfied with outcomes for volunteers in and of their volunteering, they are more interested in how volunteers will meet the needs of the service users and ultimate aims of the funding application.

Volunteering as an end in itself

Volunteers don’t get paid, not because they’re worthless, but because they’re priceless. – Sherry Anderson

In another sense, volunteering comes with some intrinsic benefits and value ‘right out of the box’- just as the above quote alludes to. Volunteering is in many ways an end in itself.

Volunteering inspires something more akin to a belief system in those who practise it. They believe in volunteering’s value a priori, not a posteriori. They don’t need to know the actual benefits and worth of volunteering before they do it. They don’t need all the social impact spelt out or measurable. Sure, social impact may be the intention, but it doesn’t need to be proven before a volunteer will get involved (here I’m really speaking as a volunteer myself).

Although having evidence of impact never hurts, not having it doesn’t necessarily deter volunteers from developing that kind of volunteering programme. The impact is believed, rather than known.

Viewing volunteering as an end in itself is certainly not tantamount to saying that the social impact of volunteering is irrelevant or inconsequential. It’s saying the reverse, it’s saying that a volunteering activity’s value is not dependent on its outcome.

Indeed, often the social impact of volunteering is impossible to understand out of the context of the relationships between those involved. In otherwise, often the single most important social impact a volunteer has are the supportive relationships they build with those they volunteer with (staff, service users and other volunteers). In this sense, volunteering can be an end in itself.

It’s worth considering the approach of Community Service Volunteers here:

Volunteering with CSV is a two way street. We aim to make sure our volunteers get as much out of the experience as the people and communities they help.

Arguably, CSV’s policy of rejecting no-one who applies to volunteer, stems from this belief in the intrinsic value of volunteering.

It’s ironic that while this approach of believing in the intrinsic value of volunteering may appear less rational, it’s in fact much more pragmatic. It also seems to be a more convincing explanation of what motivates volunteers, than simply because volunteer think of themselves as a means to end for the organisation.

Although we have ways of explaining how volunteering affects change, the indisputable proof can be illusive. Impact may take many years to manifest itself or transpire in all kinds of ways that are not immediately obvious, definitive or tangible. Volunteers are often far more motivated by a belief in the people they engage with, the merit of the particular cause or even a belief that the volunteering itself offers the volunteer themselves valuable experience.

As a result, the motivations for volunteering often hinge on a belief in the value of the volunteering itself. In many cases, in the absence of any clear evidence one way or the other, it comes down to the belief of the volunteer in the volunteering they’re taking part in.

The problem with this approach is that it becomes a more subjective experience which is then harder to communicate to a mass audience and general public. How do you educate people in the power of volunteering, if the best way to really understand it is to do it for yourself?

Often the strongest volunteering experiences, are highly personal. This approach also can also create challenges though in balancing the needs of volunteers with the needs of service users. It can, in a sense, create services where both service users and service providers (the volunteers) are beneficiaries. For example, this can sometimes make it harder for organisations to mobilize around their aims, whilst bringing their volunteers with them.

Joining the debate

It’s common in arguing publicly for the value of volunteering for us to present volunteering as both a means to end, as well as an end in itself. Justin Davis Smith argues this dual role in the recently published manifesto of Volunteering England. Volunteering is a means to offering services, but it’s also an end in itself offering benefits to the volunteers themselves:

Volunteering helps deliver essential public services, build social capital and develop trust between individuals and communities. It encourages integration and drives community cohesion. It’s informal and formal, cooperative and co-productive. It’s good for the individual too, improving health and well-being and providing opportunities to acquire skills and knowledge that can enhance career development or employment prospects.

I raise this debate because I think it heavily influences the way we explain volunteering to a broader public. It’s affects the way we seek to persuade the volunteering doubters and skeptics. For example, if we see volunteering as a means to an end – we tend to seek to persuade through evidence of impact. If we believe in volunteering as an end in itself, we focus on the intrinsic value of volunteering and how it fits in the concept of civil society.

Of course, in reality we take arguments from both sides when seeking to explain the value of volunteering. But I think it is interesting to consider these two approaches and routes to valuing volunteering.

Actually, it’s the fact that volunteering is as much an end in itself as it is a means to an end that makes it, and giving activities like it, special.

Originally posted on my blog here.

About Patrick Daniels

I work for Resolution as Operations Manager.

2 thoughts on “Volunteering: Means to an end, or end in itself?

  1. Thanks for the stimulus for thought Paddy.I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that volunteering is a very important means to an end, as it provides the opportunity for:(i) People to keep in touch with the world around them(ii) People to be more than merely a ‘service user’Both situations benefit the volunteer. By helping others, people help to develop both a healthy sense of reality and positive self-esteem.Volunteering has a critical role to play in the development of healthy communities – not because volunteering helps others, but because it helps the volunteer to be the person they can be. 

  2. Thanks for your comment Stephen. Yeh, I think you make a really good point about how we balance volunteering as an end in itself (volunteering can have value even if it’s unclear whether it’s helping the organisation achieve it’s mission) with ensuring volunteering can also make a meaningful difference beyond those volunteering. My worry is that we’re able to keep this difficult balance together. That is like you say, where volunteering “helps others” and “helps the volunteer to be the person they can be”. I wrote a further post on this subject here :-). 

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