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.
Post by Sean Cobley