No longer a ‘voluntary’ sector?

No longer a voluntary sector?

This discussion focuses on the people involved in the third sector, as volunteers, activists, trustees, frontline staff and managers. For background, we look at patterns and trends in the paid and voluntary workforce, and routes into and out of the sector. We use this to concentrate on the dynamic tension between paid and unpaid roles in the sector. Are volunteers are being marginalised by an increasing emphasis on professionalization and delivery of services, at the same time as expectations and responsibilities may be increasing?

NEW: OUTCOMES REPORT from Sounding Board meeting two


TSRC discussion paper: No longer a voluntary sector?


Live Q&A, Guardian Voluntary Sector Network: 23 October 2012, 1 – 3pm

London Seminar: 31 October, 2 – 3.30pm (view presentation)

Sounding Board meeting: 11 December 2012

Discussion for this topic is now closed. Online comments fed into the Sounding Board meeting on 11 December 2012.
View outcomes report and leave comments here



  1. Laura Hamilton says:

    •Do political expectations of the sector, and of voluntary effort more broadly, correspond with both the capacity and values of its paid and unpaid workers? If not, how might these tensions play out in the future?

    The excellent Pathways through Participation research undertaken by NCVO/Involve/Institute for Volunteering Research found that attempts by politicians to shape and mould individuals’ personal motivations are largely unsuccessful. People are motivated to engage in activities that have meaning and value to them and connect with the people, interests and issues they care about. Where the Government and organisations (e.g. TSOs) can have influence is in terms of ensuring that the resources and opportunities for participation are provided. The research also found that a good quality experience of participation, combined with resources needed to participate led to continued participation, whereas a poor quality experience, lack of resources, or a life event, could stop participation in its tracks.

    I think this contains important pointers for the sector and for Government. If we want increased participation and volunteering, we need to invest in creating opportunities and in supporting individuals to develop the personal resources required for them to participate. What isn’t going to work is a series of soundbites designed to encourage people to get involved in their local communities, but with no proper thought or resource put into supporting this involvement. I think that the political expectations around voluntary effort are over-optimistic given the current upheaval within the sector – arguably resulting in organisations being less able to devote resources to supporting involvement at a local level.

    Also, the demographic of volunteers is shifting and this means that organisations need to think differently about the ways in which they attract and involve volunteers. Volunteers have changed expectations and forces at work within their lives and the sector needs to take this into account when designing opportunities. I don’t think that this is happening to the extent that it needs to and there’s a very real danger that organisations are going to end up offering opportunities which simply don’t fit with what prospective volunteers want or feel able to offer.

    • Does the increasing professionalism of the sector herald the end of volunteering?
    I disagree strongly that professionalisation and volunteering can’t sit side by side. Ideally we need to be offering a range of opportunities for people to give their time – from skilled roles with strict criteria and skills requirements, to more flexible informal roles and also opportunities that are built around the specialist skills and knowledge of those who approach us. The paper seems to suggest that volunteering and the provision of quality frontline health and social care services don’t go hand in hand. As someone who works in a health and social care charity delivering frontline services to a large number of service users, I would disagree. What it does require is investment and a realistic understanding of the costs and benefits of effective volunteer involvement. We need to ensure that organisations are able to resource volunteering well and are able to educate commissioners to understand the value of volunteering and the investment required to make it work.

    As a volunteer manager, I think it would be useful for us to have a better understanding of the difference that investing in volunteering makes to an organisation. For example, a piece of research which evidences the value of investing in volunteer management would be really useful.

    •Is volunteering becoming a necessary stage into paid employment?
    I think in some areas of work, being able to self finance an unpaid internship is a necessary stage, but I’d see this as distinct from volunteering. Volunteering is incredibly valuable for younger people struggling to get into employment, or people who are looking for skills development opportunities that they don’t have to pay for. We created a role for volunteers within our services team that involved volunteers having greater skills development opportunities. Within a year 4/7 had progressed to paid employment. So it does help in terms of moving to paid employment, but I don’t think employers see it as an essential requirement.

    • Can governments act to increase volunteering, or does voluntary action have to be just that, voluntary?
    See also my answer to Q1 above – I think pathways through participation has a great deal to offer in terms of thinking through what Gov’ts role should be in this area. The “free choice” aspect of volunteering is vital and Government should be wary of actions which blur the boundaries between coerced programmes of involvement and “volunteering”. If we look at the example of the New Deal Voluntary Sector Option – I seem to remember this being blamed for the downturn in volunteering. I think there’s definitely a role for voluntary sector organisations in encouraging volunteering through ensuring that people are aware of opportunities, being proactive about asking individuals to participate and also by supporting individuals to grow the skills, knowledge and confidence they need to participate. I think attempts by the Government to coopt voluntary action for its own policy agendas are unlikely to increase participation.

    • Does the context of austerity present an opportunity for a reassertion ‘voluntary’ within the sector?

    I think it does, but I think few organisations have the resources or spare capacity to think about how to maximise involvement at this time. People’s time is likely to become a more readily available resource than cash. But I don’t think the sector has invested sufficiently in volunteering, to enable it to benefit from this shift. We need to be thinking strategically about volunteer involvement and too often volunteering is not considered at a strategic level within organisations, with volunteer managers often absent from senior teams. We also need to be more open to volunteers working alongside us and shaping our services and organisations. We need to accept that sometimes volunteers may bring higher skilled levels than paid staff and not be threatened by this.

    I’ve also written a recent blog, which might be useful:

    Laura Hamilton
    Volunteer and Development Manager, George House Trust

  2. Maria O'Beirne & Jeremy Vincent, DCLG says:

    I thought this paper took a more negative position on this question than expected. Missing from the paper is an account of the resilience and determination that is a feature of the sector. We know that there are variable levels of volunteering across the population and country, but we also know that few people, even in the most deprived areas do nothing at all. The paper refers to the risk this variability poses for localism, but the author could have elaborated on what this actually means. In addition to setting out the costs of volunteering, the paper could reflect the social, economic and personal benefits too. What about looking at the well-being angle, at what would engage young people, and at the co-production/empowerment angle?

    Specifically, on the questions posed:
    •Question 1 – I would rephrase this to ask: Can capacity be strengthened and how can this be efficiently, if funding availability is restricted.
    •Question 2 – Would we expect paid and volunteer staff to do the same work?
    •Suggest rephrasing question 3 as a neutral question?
    •Question 5 – Why only focus on the Government – why not ask more generally about what society can do to increase volunteering? Can government be seen is a less adversarial way with questions framed towards what it – and others – can do given the context we have?

  3. The coalition goals to increase volunteering appears to be meant as a panacea to address any difficulties raised by reduced local government budgets and public services expenditure.
    The article asks-
    Is too much being asked of volunteers?
    There is increased pressure on organisations to recruit volunteers to take on central roles previously done by staff, to ensure that important services continue to be delivered. This has negative consequences for diversity in volunteering. This current trend has brought about a reduction of access to volunteering for people with additional needs

    The face of volunteering(especially formal volunteering) is now changing and becoming more
    “elitist”- organisations want highly skilled volunteers who can “hit the floor running” to take on the roles lost to the “cuts”.

    The heightened profile of volunteering created by the Big Society Ideology and other factors has led to demand for volunteering positions outstripping available opportunities. In practical terms, this means that organisations can now be very selective about which volunteers they take on. This inevitably leads to priority being given to people who are most ‘work ready’ and who need less support, thereby side-lining further the more socially excluded groups for whom volunteering could be the most beneficial. Diversity organisations also confirm that it is becoming increasingly difficult for many of their clients to access volunteering opportunities in mainstream organisations

    Significant barriers are being created for people with additional needs who have much to benefit from the volunteering experience and in fact have much to offer. Long-term unemployed, ex- offenders, refugees and asylum seekers, people with disabilities , people with limited skills, young people with limited experience, these are the groups of people that various government programmes identify as needing most support( e.g. Talent Match, Troubled families). Yet Current trends in volunteering in both the public and voluntary sector are definitely restricting access of these groups to a very important resource. Strategic action must be taken to increase access and provide support to these groups.

  4. wally harbert says:

    I am not sure that research provides a reliable picture of volunteering. If middle-class people ask middle-class questions about volunteering in a middle-class way they should not be surprised to find that volunteering is a middle-class activity in middle-class areas of the country. By definition, we really do not know the magnitude of below-the-radar volunteering but, judging from where I live (a mixed area), it is more widespread than often supposed.

    My responsse to your six questions are as follows:
    1. Political Expectations
    You stress the diversity of the third sector. What interests me most is that different organisations adopt entirely different values so that, for example, volunteering can be a process of empowerment for the volunteer or an opportunity for volunteer managers to take charge.

    Political expectations are mixed. On the one hand, the Big Society stresses the importance of unlocking the potential of individuals and groups but on the other, the contract culture is encouraging organisations to redistribute power from volunteers to men and women in suits. The Third Sector and volunteering are likely to continue being a broad church at war with itself with weapons supplied to both sides by the government. Innovation is likely to come from small, local, groups, not the big battalions funded by public money.

    2. Division of Labour
    For me, the ideal situation is one in which work is undertaken by those with the most appropriate experience and skill. It is a matter of indifference whether they are paid or unpaid. Some volunteer managers are themselves volunteers, responsible for 600 or more volunteers.

    3. Impact of Professionalism
    Professionalised services should be applauded. The change may entail paid staff accepting some responsibilities formerly undertaken by volunteers. As your paper shows, there is a role for community-based volunteering outside the commissioning process. The story of volunteering is one of pioneering, then handing over to professionalised services. It has provoked tensions in every age but is nothing to be afraid of and does not herald the end of volunteering. (They said volunteering was dead when Henry dissolved the monasteries and when the National Health Service was introduced).

    4. A nesessary stage into paid employment?
    I cannot identify that anyone has argued for volunteering to become necessary for paid employment but volunteering may be a necessary step to a fulfilled life.

    5. What can government do to increase volunteering?
    By and large, the fewer public pronouncements about volunteering made by the government the better. There is already confusion in the public mind about the role of charities in delivering public services and spending public money. The best way for government to promote volunteering is to engage more with community-based volunteering. That may mean spending less money on national charities. In other words, the Big Society should more often trump traditional philanthropic volunteering.

    6. The impact of Austerity
    Austerity is a backdrop and a frame of mind. It represents a challenge and an opportunity. I have worked and volunteered in charities for at least sixty years and have never known a time that was not dominated by austerity. There are times when the sector is growing, times when it is contracting and times when it is shedding some responsibilities to other sectors. It is stronger today than at any other time in my life but it is worrying that it is losing its independence from government.

  5. Carl Allen says:

    Volunteer time in found in both the Third Sector and public sector services.

    • Carl Allen says:

      Volunteer time as a resource is found and used in both the Third Sector and the public sector.

      Thus the discussion will be incomplete and may be misleading as current changes to the use of volunteer time in delivering some public sector activities e.g. library and parks services, are on the road to being permanent rather than temporary and occurring only as isolated events.

      Inevitably Local Authorities will consider if and where they can make better use of volunteers than Third Sector organisations and what sort of inducements they can offer for volunteer time in varying contexts e.g. some public services morphing into community services permanently supported by the local authority.

  6. For this discussion to be meaningful it has to recognise that the majority of ‘volunteers’, maybe 600,000 or more, are not actually in the ‘voluntary sector’. They are going about their own business doing the things they self-initiate with their friends and neighbours in their local communities or in their communities of identity or interests. They are rarely going to be interested in ‘delivering public services’. They are about something else, and work and organise in a totally different dynamic. Most top down official attempts to interact with them either alienate them or kill off their spirit and energy.

    It is the major part of the community sector where residents are active in networks, informal groups and small associations. The TSRC calls this Below the Radar. I have called it the Horizontal Peer system. It is invisible so often to the policy makers and to the professional employed voluntary sector. Even when they notice it they mistakenly apply to it approaches appropriate to their own circumstances and not to the community sector’s own dynamics and needs. To make headway and stop going round in the failed circles of the last few decades trying to ‘engage the community’, we have to recognise that this invisible part of our social structure needs to be acknowledged – not to start counting it and trying to remake it into the image of the organised, employed professionalised voluntary sector and public agencies, but in its own right as a different species of organised creature without which our civil society will cease to function.

    These two short papers illustrate this other way of looking at these issues:
    * my submission to the Parliamentary enquiry on Big Society:
    * my paper to the Civil Society forum:

    My theoretical paper illuminates some of the issues in more detail:

  7. The changing role of volunteers and paid staff shades into social policy questions at a structural level, and also, into the existential aspects of engagement in the world of voluntary action.

    It is not great to feel used as a means to someones end, unless through personal choice. The philosophy of Kant is built around the principle that each person is an end in themselves. Yet that choice, at the kernel of volunteering Latin volere, to want), is being deliberately obscured and muddled.

    The problems arise as soon as the state perceives volunteering as a means towards its own goals. This isn’t by any means a recent phenomenon, although the big society ideology and public spending cuts have brought it right to to the cutting edges of social policy: the sizes and roles of public and private sectors, the scale of the welfare state, the expectations placed upon self help and public services.

    Let me describe what it is now like, working in the local voluntary sector. Philip Larkin springs to mind:

    They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you

    The encroaching culture is one of conflicting expectations and hypocrisy. Charities are by law prevented from engaging in party political activity, yet expected to engage in helping to implement the above party political ideology. Localism is promoted as a key value, yet all the pressures are towards competition, economies of scale, and creation through merger of larger, less locally-accountable and controlled organisations. Sustainability is a key cultural value, built into all funding initiatives, yet sustainable funding is virtually unobtainable. We are all familiar with the dreaded question: how will you continue this project when your funding from our award runs out? This leads directly to the mythology of social enterprise: the extra “just for you”, which conveniently absolves the state from supporting charitable activity, for are we not all aspiring businesses now?

    What about the beneficiaries of charity? For sure, there is no such thing as a free lunch, and a service is either given or purchased. Much local charitable activity aims to support poorer people, or those with special needs, who cannot afford to purchase support. This means that we must either raise funds from public sector, public donations, or charitable sources; or else we find volunteers prepared to donate their time and skills. Some things are easier than others to resource: painting red and white stripes on Beachy Head lighthouse is according to the local news attracting good support. Nnothing wrong in that, but if Lighthouse Localism becomes the norm, a determinant of local priorities for charitable support, fundamental questions of fairness and equity are going to be raised.
    Many local charities involve both paid staff and volunteers, and volunteer input is often a key selling point, claiming high value for money. There’s no easy way of juggling this tension, and it is growing rapidly harder, as more and more volunteers are coming from those made redundant by the shrinking local public sector. I feel humbled when staff my organisation has had to make redundant return to us as volunteers, and when we find ourselves depending on them, to continue activities for which they were formerly paid. It does nothing to help our local economy, either.

    If state policies are making unevidenced assumptions about future levels of volunteering, or raise challenges about equity, then surely local voluntary and community organisations have a duty to campaign about the impacts? If the voluntary sector is being asked to connive in policies which arguably threaten to undermine or destroy established public services, for which there is no evidence that local voluntary action can effectively replace, then surely it has a responsibility to decide and make public where it stands? And then, to take appropriate action, working alongside those who share this analysis?

    Adrian Barritt
    National Coalition for Independent Action
    Adur Voluntary Action

  8. The subject here of relationships between paid and unpaid staff kind of automatically directs the discussion towards the services part of the voluntary sector as this is mainly where paid staff are found. In this part of the sector ‘volunteers’ usually means people who are prepared to offer something for nothing and wait to be told by the agency what that something is, how it is to be done and who will supervise it (and them). Given the direction that the services side of the sector is going in, my guess is that we are heading for a fall because of:

    1) the move towards sub-contracting – why would anyone want to volunteer to help boost SERCO’s profits?
    2) the move towards corporatism, creating managerialist environments in which it’s miserable to work, surrounded by overpaid, kick ass managers obsessed by whatever new fangled performance management regime has recently arrived on their doorstep
    3) the role that the government (this one and the last one) has in mind for professionalised voluntary agencies – running mainstream public services. Many thousands of us citizens take exception to this and will not conspire with it
    4) the recession – loads of people who might otherwise want to do something for nothing are too busy trying to keep body and soul together.

    Plus the use of the word ‘volunteer’, acts to exclude discussion of a phenomenon actually more interesting – activism. For here too people are working for nothing but in much more of a self- and peer-directed way, on issues that are seen as political and in ways that are active not passive, including being willing to involve themselves in dissent. And surely – given what’s going on – dissent is what’s called for ?

    Andy Benson