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.

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

  1. Naomi Harflett says:

    I agree with your comments. I think it would be impossible to include informal volunteering in this. Evidence suggests people from lower socio-economic groups (who may value the reduction in council tax more) are more likely to volunteer informally. Rewarding formal and not informal volunteering would send out the signal that informal volunteering is a less valued type of volunteering. Also many people volunteer formally for fun, for leisure, for enjoyment which is great – but it would seem wrong to reward something primarily done for fun with reduced council tax when people volunteering informally helping out neighbours etc don’t get rewarded.

    I would also worry that it is coming at a time when cuts have been made to council tax and more and more people are getting into council tax arrears – danger of coerced volunteering as a way of dealing with debt….?

    • Anne Cummins says:

      Understanding the motivations and personal benefits of current volunteers and the gains for recipients could be used to encourage and support an increase in volunteers. Investing in infrastructure would strengthen volunteering for all parties.

  2. Tom Levitt says:

    There’s another reason why >financial< incentives from the public purse for volunteering (or even CSR in business) is wrong: tax (Council, Income, Nat Ins, etc) is paid to allow govt and local govt to do good on our behalf, to provide services for those that need them. Every rebate has a cost – every £1 spent incentivising volunteering is £1 that can't be spent on library books, social services, parks, street cleaning, potholes… unless they put UP the tax levels to pay for this!

  3. Why the need to complicate everything. When organisations work with other organisations and get money from this and that organisation it’s pretty noticeable that people start asking to many questions and becoming confused at what could be very simple concepts.

    First step: Organistaions–> stop accepting funding from other organisations and the government if it places too much pressure on you and you don’t like following their orders. While things are about money and finance things will always be more complicated than they need to be. Get some autonomy.

    Informal organisations would not get on board such a scheme anyway – because they are are informal organisation– the reason why they exist in the first place is because they disagree with the way the government or the ‘system’ does things so they went off and did it on their own – all those organisations that fund themselves would not be interested in a scheme like this anyway – it’s too complicated for them.

    Informal volunteering is not less valued – its that the people who choose to do informal volunteering have a different mindset. They are not your ‘average’ person drinking in a bar on a Friday night and then going back to their 9 to 5. You’re more likely to find these people dancing at a small jazz bar or attending art exhibitions or having pillow fights in the park. These are the people who care, the ones who do it because they want to. They are not the ‘norm’ in society – they cannot be defined. That’s why the third sector cannot be define!!! because people in the third sector are not like everyone else. They think freely, they are leaders, not followers. They may try to ‘fit’ in, but they are unique! and that’s why they do the work they do. Trying to make other people do as they do is a difficult task if that is not who they are by nature – and that’s why you have to give incentives– because they don’t think for themselves. They survive – they follow the money and the nice cars, the stuff they ‘think’ life is about. If you want them to wake up to the pleasures of giving, first you have to give them an incentive. So this kind of incentive is for ‘mainstream’ people – and it will work, because all they think about is survival and money. Hopefully with this kind of scheme once people start to volunteer they will see the value in giving and will begin to change and develop naturally to wanting to give rather than seeking what can be gained from it.

    And lastly – agreed with more support for volunteers – instead of volunteers being people who just come in a do a job (like any paid 9 to 5 job) volunteers should be an ACTIVE PARTICIPANT– sharing ideas, helping things change and develop– being OPEN TO DEVELOPMENT!! If volunteers just come in and do what they are told, how then is the third sector any different from the private or public sector — isn’t the third sector such because it does not behave like the others??

  4. James Derounian says:

    A different take on ‘volunteering’ and ‘incentives’ = my idea for a Big Green Gap Year (BiGGY): 6 months community/sustainability service by school leavers defering university entry – in exchange for a 1st year university tuition fee waiver of say £3,500.

    Please e-mail me for our feasibility study: jderounian@glos.ac.uk

    Or see brief (2011) Guardian article – http://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2011/jun/09/green-national-service-idea-come

    James

  5. Where to start. Inequalities and the income gap: those of us who are able to volunteer in formal settings that can be registered (or whatever they’d need to be to qualify)are not any more deserving of some (highly token) financial reward to our efforts than those who support their elderly neighbour, are carers, are working 80+ hours a week just to keep the bills paid, are unwell … need I go on?

    I started volunteering as an unskilled, unemployed youngster who had left school at 16 with no qualifications. I was bored, under-employed and I fell into volunteering (via my local Volunteer Centre) to keep myself sane. It has paid me back in so many ways – none of them (directly) financial. It transformed my life. It changed my aspirations and confidence and that led to me achieving two degrees and earning a better income than I would have done had I not discovered volunteering.

    I’m still volunteering regularly some 30 years on – one role as a trustee, one as a front line volunteer. I still get back way more than ever I put in. It keeps me involved and connected. I get to ‘work’ with people I wouldn’t spend time with otherwise, I get to learn about stuff I wouldn’t have the chance to otherwise and much of it is, well, just plain old good fun. The only period when I was volunteering less was while I was a carer – oh, and that’s when I was also more financially in need….

    However, to enable me to carry on volunteering I need settings within which I can volunteer – a structure with some paid staff to co-ordinate and support my efforts, provide training and ensure a safe environment.

    The incentive for volunteering is the opportunities it opens up for you – and they are only available where some infrastructure is in place. If there’s money to spare(!) stick it there and it’ll do us all more good than a few bob off our council tax.

    Jane