Is a Council Tax rebate for volunteering an incentive too far?

Incentives are good

Regular readers (or is it reader?) of my blog will know that I have little truck with those who argue that we should shy away from all attempts to incentivise volunteers through fear of corrupting the voluntary impulse. Although the envy of the world in many ways, our volunteering movement is still heavily skewed towards the so-called civic core, the relatively small proportion of the population that do the majority of the giving and volunteering, and barriers to greater participation (whether of image, time or resources) still abound. Attempts by such outfits as Rockcorps to use the allure of incentives (in this case a concert ticket) to capture the imagination of a new wave of volunteers seem to me to  be wholly defensible and perfectly in tune with the evolving and enterprising nature of volunteering.

And at a time when official stats suggest the post-Olympic spurt in volunteering may be beginning to slow down, new ideas to encourage participation, such as the proposal from the LGA this week to give volunteers a reduction on their Council Tax, shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The thinking behind the proposal seems sound enough. Volunteers add enormous value to our public services and local communities; cuts are making their contribution even more essential than before; and barriers are preventing some people from making their full contribution.

So what’s not to like? Well here are a couple of potential pitfalls…

Operational complexities

First, how on earth are we to organise such a scheme? Who would judge which form of volunteering is worthy of special treatment in this way? How would it be monitored? Is informal volunteering to be included or only that which takes place through an organisation? Is campaigning allowed or only service delivery activities? What would happen if a volunteer missed a couple of months’ volunteering? Would their council tax rise for that period? And what about quality? Are we to judge an individual’s qualification for the rebate solely in terms of their hours, or do we need evidence of impact? If we are not careful we will be constructing an apparatus of such complexity – which we will no doubt be asking voluntary organisations to operate without additional resources – that not only would it be likely to put off anyone from volunteering, but it would absorb any cost savings the scheme was aimed at promoting. And there remains the nagging concern that HMRC might take an interest in such ‘payments’ and deem them liable to tax, therefore reducing their appeal.

Crossing the line

But there is another concern which is more philosophical than operational. Having acknowledged above that some incentives are acceptable, even desirable, and that notions of pure altruism are almost impossible to substantiate – I have always been much more drawn to the idea of volunteering as an exchange relationship rather than a gift relationship, build on reciprocity rather than what all too often smacks of noblesse oblige –  it seems to me that there is a line in the incentives sand which we would do well not to cross, without risking undermining the very essence of volunteering.

I have not fully conceptualised where this line is in my own mind, but it is something to do with where incentives blur into free choice. The key defining characteristic for me of volunteering is that it should be entered into freely. Forced volunteering is clearly a contradiction in terms. And therefore incentives, which are of such a degree that they make it almost impossible for some people not to volunteer, seem to me to be getting dangerously close to the mark of compulsion. Perhaps £200 off a council tax bill is not quite crossing the line (although for some people it would make a significant difference), but taking it to its logical conclusion should this not work – free council tax, or as has been suggested in some quarters, preferential access to a council house or fast track citizenship status – would certainly cross the line.

Another route

Rather than risk muddying the voluntary impulse with a financial incentive, a better route might be for councils to look at ways of strengthening the intrinsic rewards of volunteering by investing in volunteer support and management, and putting the resources which would be required to operate such a system into proper funding for the local agencies such as Volunteer Centres which provide the conditions for volunteering to flourish.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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