We need to talk about volunteering: The flawed third principle of volunteering

Author: Jurgen Grotz July 2011

When we think about volunteering we want to think about the best in people and about the positive difference they can make. Volunteers are widely seen to be a great force for good and volunteering has been promoted for decades. Before the elections last year the Conservatives summed this up:

‘Volunteers are the beating heart of Britain’s civil society, an indispensable resource for the voluntary sector and in many public services. Volunteering generates social capital – building the networks that turn mere places into communities. In economic terms, the value of volunteering can be measured in billions of pounds, but its true worth is beyond price. Without volunteers much of what we take for granted in our national life would grind to a halt.’

(Conservative Party 2008: 20)

Ed Miliband, the opposition leader in his speech on ‘Responsibility in 21st Century Britain’, also refers to volunteers as the unsung heroes who make such a difference to the lives of others.’

Yet, in our desire to promote volunteering as part of our common humanity we must not be uncritical; we must not afford everything that might bear the label ‘volunteering’ the accolade of being for benefit or ignore volunteering that is not seen as being directly of benefit. Crucially, we must also be open to discuss the fact that volunteering might not always be of benefit and sometimes might be unintentionally, or even intentionally, harmful.

There is evidence that the dominant view of volunteering has been ignoring many kinds of volunteering which did not seem to fit into this common view (Rochester et al, 2010). Evidence is also coming to light, for example, during the Volunteer Rights Inquiry, that for a long time we have refused to consider that volunteering might in fact have negative consequences too (Volunteering England, 2010). There is a real danger that the continued use of a restricted view of volunteering has already led, and will increasingly lead, to flawed policy decisions. For example, what might it mean for the government’s National Citizen Service scheme and its community organisers programme if the evidence about the potential benefits of volunteering that these initiatives might be based on is flawed and no arrangements have been included to deal with its potential negative impacts?

The third principle behind volunteering

The three principles underpinning our understanding of volunteering are that it is unpaid, uncoerced and that it is of benefit to others outside one’s family (United Nations Volunteers Report, 2001). Questions have been asked about the first two principles; for example, about remuneration for volunteering such as in the form of free tickets. Also, some volunteer placement requirements for students and certain employer supported volunteering initiatives have put into question how far we can go before volunteering is no longer uncoerced. However, the third principle has remained largely unchallenged.

There is an enormous body of literature focusing on the positive impacts or benefits of volunteering to the volunteers themselves, to the organisations with which they are involved and  to the wider community. Volunteering is shown to prolong the life of volunteers and to increase the quantity and quality of services which might not be available without the help of volunteers. For society as a whole, volunteering has been connected to the building of social capital and to substantial savings to the public purse.

There is, however, also clear evidence that volunteering can be dangerous and harmful, not only for the individual volunteers but also other individuals, organisations and the wider community. Aid volunteers may “burn out” (Ross et al, 1999) and volunteer firefighters may be left with post traumatic stress (Bryant, R.A., et al, 1996). Many volunteer involving organisations have policies in place to discipline volunteers in cases such as misuse of the organisation’s equipment or facilities, theft and discrimination on grounds of disability/ race/ gender.

The “goodthat overseas volunteering does has been challenged decades ago (Illich, 1968) and the impact of emerging volunteer tourism on the host communities is now beginning to be questioned (Smith and Holmes, 2009). There also must be a question as to whether benefits or negative impacts associated with volunteering might in fact have nothing to do with its first two principles but would apply similarly if the activity was paid or coerced (Thoits and Hewitt, 2001).

While the above examples, such as post traumatic stress, may be viewed as unintended negative impacts of volunteering, there is also evidence about volunteering which is intentionally harmful. Putnam (2000) explicitly warns that social capital arising from volunteering can be used for positive and negative purposes. Like the unintentional negative impacts of volunteering, these do not appear to feature in the current discourse.

The benefit fallacy

Why is this evidence not part of the discourse about volunteering? The reason is the third principle itself. As volunteering is defined as being of benefit it appears there is a bias in reporting only volunteering which is seen to be of benefit. Its real damaging potential, however, is the fallacious assumption drawn from the third principle that all volunteering is of benefit. Crucially, all data not supporting this assumption may remain ignored in the discourse because of the bias in its reporting.

As a result of the benefit fallacy, the policy considerations concentrate on how we may maximise the engagement of volunteers – by, for example, introducing training or improving volunteer management – yet seemingly without sufficient consideration of the wider, potentially negative effects of volunteering (Commission on the Future of Volunteering, 2008).


Looking at the mountain of evidence that has been assembled about the benefits of volunteering and the disregard of much of what can be seen as not being of benefit, we can only conclude that our current view of volunteering is restricted by its definition and our desire to promote volunteering as part of our common humanity. In order to understand volunteering it is necessary to accept that volunteering is not always of benefit and therefore that the third principle of volunteering is flawed.


Bryant, R.A., and Harvey, A.G. (1996) ‘Posttraumatic stress reactions in volunteer fire fighters’, Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(1), pp 51-62.

Conservative Party (2008) A stronger society: Voluntary action in the 21st century, Responsibility Agenda, Policy Green paper No.5, Conservative Party: London.

Commission on the Future of Volunteering (2008), Report of the Commission on the Future of Volunteering and Manifesto for Change, Commission on the Future of Volunteering: London.

Grotz, J (2010) When volunteering goes wrong: misconduct in volunteering, 16th NCVO/ VSSN Researching the Voluntary Sector Conference, 6-7th September 2010, University of Leeds, UK.

Illich, I (1968) untitled talk delivered Saturday April 20 at St. Mary’s Lake of the Woods Seminary in Niles (Chicago) Illinois, the talk is also referred to as ‘to hell with good intentions’. A text version of the speech was scanned from an original mimeograph distributed to Conference participants on the following day now available at The Conference on Interamerican Student Projects website. http://www.ciasp.ca/CIASPhistory/IllichCIASPspeech68.pdf. [last accessed 24.01.2011]

McCord, J (2003) ‘Cures That Harm: Unanticipated Outcomes of Crime Prevention Programs’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 587, pp. 16-30.

Putnam, R.D. (2000) Bowling Alone, The collapse and revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks:New York.

Rochester, C., Ellis Paine, A. and Howlett, S. (2010) Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century, Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke.

Ross M.W. Greenfield S. A. and Bennett L. (1999) ‘Predictors of dropout and burnout in AIDS volunteers: a longitudinal study’

AIDS Care, 11(6), pp.723-731.

Smith, K. and Holmes,K. (2009) ‘Researching Volunteers in Tourism: Going beyond’, Annals of Leisure Research, 12(3/4), pp. 403

– 420.

Thoits, P.A. and Hewitt, L.N. (2001) ‘Volunteer Work and Well-Being’, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 42(2), pp. 115-131. United Nations Volunteers Report, prepared for the UN General Assembly Special Session on Social Development, Geneva,

February 2001 quoted in Volunteering England (2008), Volunteering England Information Sheet: Definitions of Volunteering, Volunteering England: Website.

Volunteering England (2010) Volunteer Rights Inquiry: Interim Report, Volunteering England: London.

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