When volunteering becomes an institution

“Attlee – the institution” -> Photo Credit: sludgegulper (Flickr)

“We shall always have alongside the great range of public services, the voluntary services which humanize our national life and bring it down from the general to the particular.” – Clement Attlee

This quote from Clement Attlee, quoted in Briggs and Macartney, Toynbee Hall: First Hundred Years (1984) 35-6, via An Introduction to the Voluntary Sector – Eds. Justin Davis Smith, Colin Rochester and Rodney Hedley (Ch 1, The Voluntary Tradition, J Davis Smith).

“Many of us have been in this business of labelling and re-labelling the concept of voluntary service. I now find this process irritating – politicians labelling and re-labelling, capturing and re-capturing something which anybody with any sense knows that, regardless of government or regardless of the results of a General Election, is the essence of English society – the concept that people go out and do things which they are not forced to do and which they are not paid to do.” – Douglas Hurd

˜Society’s responsibility for the irresponsible individual’, Friday 23 October 1998, by The Rt. Hon Lord Hurd of Westwell CH CBE, Chair of the Prison Reform Trust


The relationship between the state and voluntary sector has been a source of controversy for many years. Frank Furedi believes that the state’s close interest in volunteering has led to it becoming institutionalised. Does the prospect of official and unofficial volunteering threaten to split the voluntary sector in two, between those who cooperate with the state’s agenda for volunteering and those who don’t?

The following post started off life as an off-the-cuff analysis of Frank Furedi’s recent article in the Australian, “Do good, but do it our way” (3rd December 2011). You can’t read it there (unless you subscribe to that paper), but you can read the full version on his website.

Furedi’s opinion piece touches on the thorny issue of how the state promotes and supports volunteering. If (for arguments sake) you conflate volunteering and voluntary services, this is not a new issue, as the quote from Attlee intimates.

Ironically, Furedi’s criticism is that volunteering is precisely not doing what Clement Attlee identified as voluntary services’ great contribution when he worked at Toynbee Hall over a hundred years ago. Attlee famous for presiding over the creation of the modern welfare state in the UK, worked at Toynbee Hall as Secretary for around a year early in his career. Furedi asserts that voluntary services are effectively being constrained by the state in how they can ‘humanize our national life’ and how they can go from the ‘general to the particular’. Not to put to fine a point on it: volunteering is becoming institutionalised.

There’s confusion about how we resolve the issues that arise, the more the state gets involved in the development of volunteering and voluntary services. Issues such as independence, influence and professionalisation of the voluntary sector are just some examples. Meta Zimmeck and Colin Rochester’s recent summary of the issues with the Compact (an agreement between government and the voluntary and community sector first published in 1998) provides more practical examples of the kinds of issues in formalising the relationship between government and the voluntary sector.

We’ve come a long way since the antipathy and suspicion of the Thatcher years, the formalised partnerships with the Deakin Commission and the Compact under Blair, the grand plans under Brown, and the cuts and optimism with Cameron’s Big Society. However, while prime ministers come and go, volunteering appears to be on an inexorable rise on the policy agenda. But is this evidence of a creeping institutionalisation of volunteering as Furedi suggests?

Although I don’t buy Furedi’s central argument about a golden age of volunteering and public virtue, behind his column lies a pertinent question about the institutionalisation of the voluntary sector. We ignore it at our peril.

  • What are the implications of the state’s steadily growing involvement in the volunteering agenda?
  • Is institutionalisation an inevitable part of the government and the voluntary sector working closer together?

Since the 1970s in particular, governments across the world have taken an increasing interest in volunteering, providing it with greater recognition and financial assistance. Is institutionalisation the next step in this evolution of the relationship? Will the state get a greater and greater say in the kind of social order and rules that govern volunteering?

In 2009, Colin Rochester set out the positions in the debate about state and volunteering as follows:

State can play a role in the development of volunteering

  • State is both benign and competent: for example, state can set strategic direction for volunteering; (issue is one of making technical improvements to policy and implementation)

State can not play a role in the development of volunteering

  • State is neither benign nor particularly effective;
  • Volunteering is – and should be – every bit as anarchic, ungovernable and untidy (Dahrendorff; Kearney) – “if government has a role, it extends no further than ensuring that there are few, if any, obstacles to volunteering. Otherwise it needs simply to ˜get out of the way'”

Panel Session- NCVO conference: Making a difference? Reviewing government’s involvement in volunteering, ˜Losing Soul’: Should we be concerned about the independence of volunteering?’ (PDF), Colin Rochester

The contrast between how the state-volunteering issue is usually discussed, is that Furedi’s tone is substantially more pessimistic. He has no time for the achievements that have come from this closer working relationship between the voluntary sector and the state. A forward looking analysis must assimilate both the benefits, as well as the costs. What Furedi does do that’s helpful, is to sound a warning shot to all those currently rethinking the nature of the relationship between state and volunteering in the future.

Just yesterday, the Policy Exchange published a report (PDF) by Anthony Seldon which called for a revived Big Society. It was laced with the kind of institutionalised version of volunteering we’ve come to expect from policy proposals (emphasis added):

  • “retired people should volunteer and continue to be actively involved in helping others in their communities”.
  • “dramatic boost to volunteering and training schemes should be urgently introduced to ensure that every young person can be occupied in meaningful employment”
  • All schools to have compulsory volunteering afternoons: those children who volunteer when young are more likely to continue when older”

It’s a quick step from “should volunteer”, to volunteering “as occupying time”, to “compulsory volunteering afternoons”. Is a world where volunteering becomes an institution desirable or not?

These are just some of the examples of current practice by UK government. But at what point do they effectively institutionalise volunteering?

I feel like this question gets to the nub of the issue and reveals the shifting tectonic plates in how volunteering is developing in the UK.

On the one hand, there’s the cause for greater professionalisation in the voluntary sector that could be advanced with the greater status and recognition that institutionalisation confers. On the other hand, the cause for a fuller appreciation of volunteering’s potential is set back by its institutionalisation.

Let’s face it: we have difficulty enumerating volunteering’s secret sauce, let alone bottling it.

The question of insitutionalisation alludes to a very real tension that’s ratcheted up, each time volunteering climbs higher the policy agenda.

I don’t pretend to have the answer to such a fundamental question, but I feel like it’s an issue that needs airing outside the political arena. Thinking it through helps to articulate the juncture that we’ve reached in volunteering today. A fork in the road where we run the risk of seeing officially recognised volunteering and unofficial unrecognised volunteering splitting the voluntary sector in two.

Supporting notes

I’ve written up my notes for this blog post below, including a running commentary on Furedi’s original article on volunteering’s institutionalisation.

Furedi is an academic (Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent). He’s widely published across the media who appreciate his combative style and headline-friendly polemic. This is no accident, given his political activist background. I think it’s fair to say that he’s a seasoned critic/skeptic of government’s policy towards volunteering over the last decade or so. Very broadly, he argues that public policy which promotes volunteering, actually undermines, more often than not, the essence of what volunteering is. Although I think it’s also equally fair to say that a narrative on volunteering hasn’t (until recently) been one of his central concerns.

In recent years, Furedi’s growing concern about volunteering has really manifested itself in his criticism of the extension of the reach of Criminal Record Bureau checks which he cited as negatively impacting on volunteering. This attention to volunteering really features as part of Furedi wider thesis about a developing “culture of fear” (‘Culture of fear: risk-taking and the morality of low expectation‘; first published in 1997).

Culture of fear

His concern can be summarised at the level of the state: volunteering has been co-opted by the state in an attempt to address the state’s own crisis of legitimacy. In the ‘Culture of Fear’, he says:

“During the past decade, successive governments have actively encouraged volunteering and have increasingly sought to use non-governmental organisations to deliver services.”

He goes on:

“Official patronage of advocacy groups represents an attempt to mitigate the effects of the loss of legitimacy previously enjoyed by the political class.” [p.186, Culture of Fear]

In turn, his concern is also at the level of the citizen: as a result of the co-opting of the voluntary sector by the state, citizens have been encouraged to view volunteering as a means to further narrow self-interested goals. As he states in an article, “It’s time to stand up for courage and conviction“:

“Now call me old-fashioned, but when I was young you volunteered because you believed in something. You wanted to help people; you wanted, for instance, to give blood. You didn’t do volunteering because it looked good on your CV.”

Furedi fears volunteering has become a mere transaction, rather than a transformation.

Moral maze

Coincidentally, in a year when the sector has faced unprecedented cuts, Volunteering England, invited Claire Fox, Director, Institute of Ideas, to their AGM in November to discuss: “What is volunteering for? Is the volunteering movement so taken up with current needs we’ve lost a vision for the future?”.

Claire Fox is a fellow member, along with Furedi, of the so-called informal Living Marxism network. She has been echoing fairly similar arguments. You can get a flavour from this opening remark she made on a recent episode of Moral Maze on the relationship between the state and the charity sector (23rd Feb 2011).

“I have been worried about the dangers of crushing the lifeblood out of a very distinctive part of society, civil society, which is the third sector, by the fact that often I can’t tell the difference between it and the state. So the idea that it is going to do even more work commissioned by the state seems to me to be destroying the very voluntarism of the voluntary sector.”

So we kick off this discussion of Furedi’s recent article:

Volunteering has been turned into an institution that is promoted on the grounds of its benefits for the volunteer and for the community, and its meaning has been thoroughly transformed.

Ok. Here’s what Furedi contests: that volunteering has been turned into “an institution”. I take this to mean that volunteering is somehow less human now. In other words, it’s really human for people to want to help each other. Helping each other doesn’t need to fit a formally agreed definition of volunteering, to be legitimate cooperative behaviour.

It’s worth being wary of a sociologist’s use of the term ‘institution’. It comes packed with significance. There’s not much more in the way of clarification from Furedi about what he means exactly by the word ‘institution’ in the context of volunteering. But from his comments, you can hazard a guess that he’s particularly concerned with how volunteering is being used as a way of enforcing a layer of social order and rules in how people help each other, which is needless in his view.

“the culture comprised of attitudes and norms that is aligned to the formal and official complex of tasks and rules might compete with an informal and unofficial culture that is adhered to by a substantial sub-element of the organisation’s membership” [standford.edu]

Here’s the rub: with institutionalisation of volunteering, there’s a sense in which there’s a right way to volunteer and a wrong way. One example of how this plays out is in moral disapproval meted out to those not at the standard expected. The other is through the law where legal sanctions have been used against those engaged in bad practice.

“It is sometimes claimed that in addition to structure, function and culture, social institutions necessarily involve sanctions. It is uncontroversial that social institutions involve informal sanctions, such as moral disapproval following on non-conformity to institutional norms.” [standford.edu]

Of course, it’s not often as simple as that. At present, volunteering is often impacted by the law in unintended ways, in part because many of these laws are not drafted with volunteering specifically in mind. For this reason, many of the legal implications on volunteering practice is open to the interpretation of courts, tribunals, lawyers and the government. This situation has led to controversial decisions particularly in employment tribunals.

This predicament has everything to do with the issue of institutionalisation. The solution legally is to opt for greater clarity. However, greater clarity comes with greater codification of the rules, norms and values surrounding volunteering, i.e. greater institutionalisation.

For this reason, most balk at greater legal clarity, despite it often leaving volunteers with less protection in situations of bad practice. A case in point, is the recent debate about volunteer rights and whether greater regulation of volunteering is needed. Many called for powers for a volunteering ombudsman to be able to adjudicate in cases. Others saw this as a step too far towards institutionalisation. It’s ironic that on the issue of volunteer rights it’s often the volunteering professionals who are reluctant to pursue further institutionalisation, while it is volunteers on the receiving end of bad practice who advocate greater institutionalisation.

I say ironic because Furedi argues it’s actually the professionals who want institutionalisation, rather than the volunteers. We’ll explore this further later in this post. Anyway, back to Furedi:

Not so long ago, volunteering was associated with a genuine ethos of service and with an act of altruism.

To paraphrase, I understand this as: ‘Volunteering was (note the past tense) previously based in our common humanity (our sense of altruism) to a much greater degree’. Can institutions be altruistic? I don’t think they can. This argument feels like a distant cousin of the ‘forcing people to volunteer’ debate. So I think Furedi’s point here is about this kind of denuding of volunteering (it used to have a ‘genuine ethos’ and now it doesn’t).

Mislaying altruism

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of language and the use of word ‘altruism’. It was more than a little ironic that Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Exec of ACEVO, mislaid the word altruism when trying to pinpoint the defining factor between the state and the charity sector live on Radio 4’s Moral Maze. Bubb’s oversight revealed why the charge has begun to stick: that the state has so set the volunteering agenda that the sector has lost sight of why people want to volunteer.

To digress for a second, the programme also highlighted the difficulty where the issue of the state’s role in volunteering, is overshadowed by the higher profile issue of rolling back the state. For example, Nick Seddon’s work to highlight state funding of charities. This blog post is an attempt to show how it’s broader than the question of funding. After all, this issue of charities compromising mission is equally true for those accepting large donations from rich individual philanthropists who can influence the volunteering agenda. However, the issue of the institutionalisation of volunteering hints at an even more profound (though less discussed) dilemma in the relationship between state and voluntary sector: institutionalisation (can you bottle volunteering’s secret sauce without undermining it?)

Added to this discussion of altruism, comes the idea of ethos (moral character). The issue of ethos gives a critical nuance to this debate because it makes the link between how we get from volunteering to a state’s claim to legitimacy (volunteering and the sense of citizenship). Volunteering as a route to citizenship has always held a certain attraction for politicians of all colours. I think it was Douglas Hurd who was first to utter the phrase the ‘active citizen‘. Other examples has flowed from this close connection in the minds of politicians: the citizenship survey to track volunteering, corporate citizenship and earned citizenship for refugees through volunteering. Interesting to look at “Volunteering, Active Citizenship and Community Cohesion: From theory to practice” by Angela Ellis Paine, Institute for Volunteering Research; Michael Locke , Centre for Institutional Studies, University of East London; Veronique Jochum, National Council for Voluntary Organisations (July 2006) [PDF].

If a state can claim it underwrites an ethos (or moral disposition/beliefs) that provides a key part of today’s cooperative social order, it begins to get a say in what the ethos is or what those beliefs are. Previously, other long established social institutions such as family or religion could have claimed to underwrite an ethos of giving, now as their influence wanes, the state seeks to fill the gap with other forms of cooperative social order. Increased state funding of volunteering clearly not only supports the development of volunteering, but has lead to the state influencing the kind of volunteering that develops as a result.

What endowed volunteering with an attractive moral quality was that people performed an action or provided a service to others without any compulsion. This was an act based on one’s own free will and motivated by the conviction that it was the right thing to do.

So to pursue this thought- the natural consequence of this institutionalisation of volunteering for Furedi, is an increased tendency to constrain interpersonal relationships. He doesn’t say this directly here, but I’m assuming that he sees the growth in formalised processes and structures around volunteering (such as legal entities like charities or government), as unnecessary intermediaries between people in the pursuit of volunteering.

The act of volunteering continues to retain its inspiring moral qualities to this day, and we rightly regard the volunteer who helps others as more virtuous as someone whose behaviour is entirely dominated by self-interest. When the ethos of service appears to be conspicuously absent in much of public life it is not surprising that volunteering is celebrated as a highly valued accomplishment.

Ethos in service

So this is where Furedi shifts gears.

He praises volunteering (and by extension those promoting it). He gives a nod to ‘moral qualities’ which seemed implied by his previous reference to ‘ethos’.

Despite this it feels like it’s praise reluctantly given. Even if volunteering is not as human as it could be, less human is better than actively antagonistic to others (or as Furedi phrases it- ‘entirely dominated by self-interest’).

This praise comes with a sting in the tail.

This celebration of volunteering by the state, conceals an even greater bureaucratisation/institutionalisation of service in public life (I’m guessing this is behind his claim that there’s an absence in the “ethos of service”). Frustratingly, Furedi doesn’t get into why government can successfully co-opt volunteering’s ethos of service, but not the ethos of service in public life. The argument, I think, is that the state can co-opt the ethos of volunteering through influencing charities, but has no such proxy for co-opting the ethos of public service.

Regrettably, volunteering has been turned into an institution that is promoted on the grounds of its benefits for the volunteer and for the community. Consequently the meaning of volunteering has been thoroughly transformed. When governments self-consciously promote and administer volunteering schemes it is evident that it has nothing to do with the exercise of free will.

Now this is where Furedi begins to reveal his hand. His problem is not just that volunteering has taken the wrong path (towards ‘institutionalisation’), it’s that governments are co-opting people’s better instincts for the governments’ own benefit. This goes to the heart of Furedi’s argument. For me, it’s the strongest part of his argument.

The list of failed government-sponsored volunteering initiatives is long for sure.

Yet, I can’t help feeling Furedi profoundly fails to diagnose where the incompatibility lies between government and volunteering.

In government-sponsored initiatives, the element of personal freedom is often overpowered by the focus on social benefit. But this is not to say free will is non-existent.

Take the organisation Volunteering Australia. It was established by the government’s Office for the Not-for-Profit Sector. Volunteering Australia claims to represent the diverse views and needs of the volunteer community while promoting the activity of volunteering as one of enduring social, cultural and economic value.

Volunteering Australia denies this is how it was established in it’s formal response to Furedi, and stresses that it is an independent non-for-profit, yet it doesn’t go into details about how it is currently funded in its response. Looking at it’s accounts for 2011 (PDF) though, it seems clear the vast majority of its funding comes from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

State funding

The issue seems to be how we in the volunteering sector recognise the extent to which our work to develop volunteering is influenced by our state funders. It’s worth remembering that this is not just an issue with state funding of volunteering, it important to consider corporate influence over the ethos of volunteering through how and what kind of volunteering development it funds.

The preposterous concept of a volunteer community is testimony to the professionalisation of what was at one time perceived as a spontaneous act. A community of professional volunteers would be a clearer representation of the lobby that Volunteering Australia speaks for.

Volunteer community

To me it’s curious that Furedi picks up on the weakness (relative lack of cohesion) of the ‘volunteer community’. The notion of a ‘community of volunteers’ is problematic for a whole range of reasons. For example:

  • volunteering covers a huge range of activity, so many of the most cohesive volunteer communities are built around specific activities, rather than an aggregate of volunteering;
  • volunteers don’t often self identify as volunteers, they identify with the cause, issue, or people directly in need they volunteer to serve

As a result, the idea of a volunteer community, on balance, remains more latent than actual. This latent volunteer community exists to the extent that many volunteers (across issues and activities) have shared values, goals and interests. Yet, making this latent community a practical reality is one of the greatest challenges for organisations, such as Volunteering Australia or Volunteering England, that seek that seek to bring together those involved in all kinds of volunteering.

In many sociological definitions, the concept of the ‘institution’ actually presupposes the existence of a community. As a result, this relative incohesion of the volunteer community, would seem to undermine Furedi initial assertion that volunteering’s becoming an institution. That’s to say: institutionalisation implies the idea of a volunteer community is becoming more feasible, not more preposterous. Furedi can’t have it both ways.

What’s even more disturbing is that volunteering is advocated not because it is something that is good in itself but because the Australian government recognises that it delivers a number of key social and economic benefits.

Is it more “disturbing” that volunteering should be seen as either a means to ‘economic and social benefits’ or as a good in itself? Volunteering is best understood as both. It’s a means to an end and an end in itself. Any approach that focuses on any one motivation or impact of volunteering to the exclusion of the other, simply undervalues or misunderstands what volunteering is.

Means to an end?

The challenge is to understand how to balance these two aspects of volunteering. Furedi’s argument leaves no room for such an idea. What’s interesting is that what Furedi is actually highlighting is the real problem that the government-led volunteering agenda often over-emphasises volunteering as a “means to end”. For example, government volunteering have included making volunteering’s a means to: reducing youth offending, getting offenders to pay back to the community, getting the unemployed back into work, turning immigrants into fuller citizens, etc.

The institutionalisation of volunteering destroys the meaning of an altruistic act. Anyone visiting the website of Volunteering Australia could be excused for interpreting volunteering as an instrument for skills acquisition and enhancing one’s career opportunities. The website declares that good quality, appropriate training and skills development is something (that) Volunteering Australia champions. It runs a National Volunteer Skills Centre and places a great emphasis on training people to be volunteers.

So the basis for this comment from Furedi, partly has to do with his general distaste for volunteering as a means, rather than an end. The example he gives is volunteering to improve your CV, rather than simply to help others or change the world. But he’s also doing something else that merits our attention. He’s conflating how we understand volunteering at the level of the individual, and how we understand it at the level of the society. Can an institution be altruistic? You might equally ask can an institution be egoistic? How altruism at individual level translates into cooperative behaviour at the level of the community is a huge jump and involves levels of complexity that I think Furedi is in danger of glossing over.

Developing training opportunities (that don’t oblige volunteer to remain for a minimum period), can allow people to understand better what it is they’re volunteering for and how to get involved. As a result, training and skills development, can actually enhance people’s freedom. Cooperative behaviour can be organised. There’s a crucial balance to be struck between the necessary organising that facilitates cooperation and unnecessary organisation that hinders cooperation. This is yet another example of this tension between the individual and community level that Furedi simply skates over with the phrase ‘institutionalisation destroys altruism’.

As a volunteer, you have the right to be provided with sufficient training to do your job, it tells potential candidates for the volunteering profession.

And just in case you are worried about paper qualifications, Volunteering Australia provides certificates I, II and III in active volunteering, which it claims are the first of their kind: nationally recognised qualifications for volunteers.

Volunteering Australia’s Paul Lynch makes a similar point in his response to Furedi: “The impulse to ‘do good’ does not guarantee you will know what to do, have the equipment to do it, or know how to use it as walls of flames approach the local community hall”.

The official promotion of volunteering is motivated by the recognition that the disengagement of large sections of society from public life represents a very real challenge for governments. Attempts to confront the problem of civic disengagement often turn into desperate efforts to invent quick-fix administrative solutions to what is a fundamental cultural process of social and moral disenchantment.

So at this point Furedi returns to his central narrative: civic disengagement has led governments to use volunteering in response.

It is worth noting that policymakers throughout the Western world have embraced volunteering as something of a big idea for getting the public to re-engage with society. The European Union designated this year as the European Year of Volunteering. Speaking a language that echoes that of Volunteering Australia, the EU’s official document asserts that volunteering can provide people with new skills and competencies that can improve their employability. It adds that this is especially important at this time of economic crisis.

Furedi singles out this view of volunteering, by many governments, as a means to improving employability of citizens. It’s clear that governments have an agenda. In fact, most funding on volunteering has an agenda such as that coming from corporates or foundations that volunteering advocates should be alert to. The way forward is for the volunteering sector to fight for a better understanding of volunteering by all those promoting it, whether passionate individuals, state representatives or corporate supporters. Furedi is not really interested in developing volunteering for it’s own sake, he seems more interested in using it as a means to bash certain policy-makers over the head.

That said, he does highlight a question that many volunteering advocates have ignored for too long: how can we ensure that it’s the volunteering need that drives the funding response, and not the agenda of the funders that drives the volunteering on offer?

Unfortunately, the bureaucratisation of volunteering makes it hard to promote as a public virtue. People who genuinely feel inspired to volunteer do so because they feel strongly about the need to contribute to their community.

A sense of social obligation to the community and the desire to help others has encouraged millions of people to volunteer in the past. Today’s volunteering professionals do not believe that people can still be expected to serve others out of a sense of civic duty.

In the so-called volunteering community, acts of solidarity motivated by altruism are often caricatured as traditional volunteering. Terms such as anachronistic and traditional are used to disparage volunteering that is driven by the impulse to do good for others. The ideals of selfless volunteering are dismissed as a luxury that only the rich can afford. Civic virtue has been recast as an elitist indulgence.

This final few paragraphs connects this opinion piece with Furedi’s broader thesis: that traditional virtues are denigrated in today’s culture of fear. It would be really interesting to know exactly what he’s referring to when he says that terms such as ‘traditional’ are used to disparage volunteering.

In Britain, advocates of the professionalisation of volunteering argue their so-called inclusive approach permits the benefits of volunteering to be enjoyed by people on low incomes. Their advocacy of a more inclusive approach to volunteering is based on the patronising assumption that, unlike the great and the good, working-class people need economic incentives to act virtuously. It overlooks the fact, historically, people suffering deprivation have been more than ready to sacrifice their time to support causes in which they believed. What drove the unpaid union organiser or the official of a co-operative society were strong convictions and a sense of civic virtue. They did not require a certificate I in volunteering to give up their time to help others. The so-called elitist traditional approach was far more inclusive than contemporary schemes that bribe people to pretend to volunteer.

Necessary organising vs unnecessary organisation

Again, Furedi raises the debate about necessary organising vs unnecessary organisation question without any recognition of the complexity. Different challenges call for different approaches. Over time informal relationships tend to formalise. Volunteers are motivated by their ability to meet the need of those they seek to help. Sometimes formal organisations can play a role in supporting this type of volunteering, other times too much formality and organisation suffocates the ability of individuals to step up and volunteer.

There are situations where paying a volunteer’s expenses is simply good practice. It’s about recognising the value of what people offer as volunteers. There are situations where volunteering takes place on a small scale (or short time scale) informally and where a group not being able to repay expenses or have formal processes in place should not stand in the way of volunteering taking place. This has been a debate in volunteering since the year dot.

There’s another debate that Furedi is failing to mention. Much of what he’s referring to here finds parallels in the debate between the distinction between volunteering and community service and how we understand civic engagement. I contest there’s a trade off in terms of whether we choose to eschew giving- weighted towards achieving social benefit, and giving- weighted towards the individuals personal freedom to act (here’s a previous blog post with more details).

What is truly tragic about the professionalisation of volunteering is that it implicitly evades the challenge of motivating people – especially the young – through appealing to their sense of solidarity and community. Society needs to motivate its youth to possess a sense of civic duty precisely because it is good in and of itself. We can’t always do good, and certainly not all of the time. The impulse of self-interest is always an important element of human behaviour. But self-interest notwithstanding, a vibrant community must always attempt to foster a climate where altruistic behaviour is accepted and affirmed.

Furedi’s lack of balance ultimately leads to a flawed conclusion: a social solution (society promoting civic duty) is the right response to a problem framed at the individual level (altruistic behaviour not accepted).

Thankfully, despite the attempt to bureaucratise a fine old civic virtue, real volunteers are still doing the business. They are those unassuming and often anonymous individuals who don’t possess paper qualifications as mentors or facilitators or animators. Let them thrive.

Yep we knew that. It’s the potential split between formally recognised volunteers on the one hand, and unofficial volunteering on the other that’s ultimately the issue.

The challenge is that these numerous tensions that volunteering bridges will clearly split the voluntary sector, if the state pushes ahead with ever greater institutionalisation of volunteering.

Reactions to Frank Furedi’s original article:


About Patrick Daniels

I work for Resolution as Operations Manager.

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