Is formal volunteering finished?

This is an edited version of a speech given at the AGM of the Association of Volunteer Managers on 23 October 2014

Widening the civic core

Official surveys suggest a slight increase in volunteering following the 2012 Games, with a tailing off in the past year. However, with the exception of a few blips every now and again, the level of volunteering has remained virtually constant over the past 40 years. Barriers remain which prevent volunteering being open for all, which perhaps explains the presence of the civic core, the 9% of the population which account for half of all volunteering hours, two thirds of charitable giving, and a quarter of civic participation.

Widening this civic core is one of the key challenges facing volunteering.

Volunteering’s sassy younger sibling

Which is one reason that volunteering’s sassy younger sibling, social action, has sashayed onto the stage in recent years, promising to cut through the supposed stuffiness of traditional volunteering and replace it with an informal, bottom up, social engagement.

Only social action, it is argued, can hope to engage a new generation of socially conscious and tech-savvy individuals. Only social action can hope to make serious inroads into the civic core.

To survive volunteering will need to adapt.​

Volunteering is dead, long live social action…?

Join us at Evolve 2015 in June for our strategic workshop S5 From civic core to social action: The changing face of volunteering.

Find out more about Evolve 2015

Learning from Social Action

  • Volunteering will need to offer greater choice. People are used to searching online for something that suits them at a particular time and organisations will need to match this variety on offer.
  • People are living increasingly hectic lives. Volunteering will need to fit around individuals, not the other way round, hence the rise of interest in micro-volunteering.
  • Organisations will need to deal with the demand for immediacy and will not wait a couple of weeks for a reply to their offer of volunteering help.
  • Self-organising has become the norm. People want to be in control of their free time. They expect to have a say in how their leisure is structured. They will expect to have a say in how their volunteering is organised.
  • People want to do things together. They want to co-create solutions to the problems they see around them. The Wiki generation co-produces knowledge; they will want to co-produce their volunteering as well.
  • Deference is on the wane. The divide between experts and the rest of us is breaking down. We all have something to say and knowledge to impart and we are no longer willing to put our trust and faith in the hands of others.
  • Command and control as a management technique is outmoded. Volunteer-involving organisations need to be willing to place power in the hands of the social activists, the social entrepreneurs and the volunteers of the future.

The limits of social action

But before we rush to write formal volunteering’s obituary, let’s look at some of the less positive aspects of social action.

  • Too often the language and culture of social action feeds the view that volunteering just happens, without the need for support or investment. Let a thousand flowers bloom goes the cry. Yet we know that the most effective volunteering, such as the Games Makers for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, requires investment in management, support and infrastructure.
  • It also encourages the view that the only thing the state needs to do to support volunteering is to get out of the way. Co-production as a concept trips a bit too easily off the tongue, but it tells a truth that volunteering doesn’t need to be at odds with the state and can co-design and deliver solutions to some of the biggest challenges of our age. Just one example: Leeds Volunteer Centre, which has set up a base within Leeds prison, to introduce soon to be released prisoners to volunteering as a way of aiding their rehabilitation. The results have been astounding with a massive reduction in expected re-offending amongst those placed in volunteering roles, with all the benefits which accrue, including to the public purse.
  • And finally, let’s not kid ourselves that social action has got it all sussed. I went on to one of the micro-volunteering sites recently and alongside the good – write a letter to a sick child, fill out an on-line health survey – there was the downright bizarre. ‘Nessie Watch’ was my favourite. For 15 minutes during your lunchtime you can take control of the cameras on Loch Ness to ensure we don’t miss that elusive sighting. Good fun for sure, but perhaps light on social benefit, and not a huge threat to meals on wheels or the Samaritans.


Traditional volunteering needs to move with the times, taking what is best about social action in terms of its immediacy, its choice, and its re-balancing of power between organisation and volunteer.

But it needs to do this without throwing out what makes it such a vital and enduring part of our society. People will still be clamouring for longer-term, well-structured and well-supported opportunities; and society will certainly continue to have a need for such volunteers. This will require investment in volunteer management and infrastructure. Yes the nature of such support will change but its need will not disappear.

A new report out from Join In has estimated the value of volunteering in sport to the UK economy to be in excess of £50bn per annum, making it bigger than the energy sector.

Not bad for a movement supposedly on its last legs.

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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.

7 Responses to Is formal volunteering finished?

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  2. Henry Meiklejohn says:

    “The results have been astounding with a massive reduction in expected re-offending amongst those placed in volunteering roles”

    Bit of an empty over-statement as it appears nothing has actually changed yet, it’s just expected to. Maybe it will massively reduce re-offending rates but I will be much more impressed when there is some hard data to report.

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      Thanks Henry and my fault – poor drafting. It might have been clearer to say ‘predicted’ re-offending rates, as what we have seen is significantly reduced rates compared to what we would have expected to happen without this intervention. So things have most definitely happened and for the good.

  3. An excellent and thought provoking look at this issue.

    What we would perhaps seek to add from our experience is that what is vital to unlock the potential and contribution of those outside the “civic core” is the creation of relevant, engaging and inspiring vehicles for volunteering. What is missing from the stats around the “civic core” is how many of these are in some way faith based – which (don’t get me wrong) is fantastic for those that they engage (who make a massive contribution as the stats show) but in an increasingly secular society, may not be universally appealing.

    With the specific demographic from which we’re trying to engage volunteer mentors (men aged between 29 and 99) there are few such appropriate vehicles. It is our mission to unlock the dormant assets within a community to tackle young male disaffection. To do so, we know we need to provide volunteering activity which:

    – Is genuinely meaningful and fits within an individuals own sense of purpose and values

    – Gives as much as we ask – we invest massively in the development of our volunteers. The personal development and skills development they receive is (we beleieve) second to none

    – Honours the volunteers by respecting their time and ensuring they are NEVER seen as a cheap labour option

    – Recognises that within any group there will be conflict and that the creative resolution of that conflict, resulting in personal learning for all parties, is essential. In our opinion, too many volunteering groups shy away from conflict, seeing it as a negative thing.

    Hope this is of interest to anyone who’s made it this far through my post!

    Best, Nathan

  4. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Thanks Nathan, I think the four points you make in relation to volunteer involvement get to the heart of the issue. Making volunteering meaningful, seeing it as reciprocal in nature, avoiding job substitution, and having in place processes for dealing with conflict lie at the heart of all good volunteering programmes.

  5. wally Harbert says:

    I was delighted to read this piece and agree totally with the sentiments expressed. However I do not accept some of the reasoning.

    Social action is not a younger sibling of volunteering. It was first on the block having been around in Saxon times. It nearly de-throned King John and saw the end of Wat Tyler.

    The style of much of today’s volunteering goes back only to the nineteenth century with the development of philanthropic charities which are now beginning to recognise that they do indeed have a lot to learn from voluntary action.

    Let us be clear. There has always been a need to offer choice to volunteers, to minimise bureaucracy, to ensure that they have maximum control over their work and that they can join with others to create their own solutions to problems. Potential volunteers have been put off by the stuffiness of some organisations and the attitude that “we know best”.

    It is because so many philanthropic charities have been unwilling to place power in the hands of volunteers that many potentially valuable volunteers have kept their distance.

    It is not volunteers who are changing but the understanding of philanthropic charities that they will not attract recruits of the calibre they need unless they offer something better.

    That being so, when are we going to see an update of Investing in Volunteers to reflect this change of heart?

  6. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Thanks Wally and, as an historian by training, music to my ears to see Wat Tyler being brought into the social action fold! Of course you are right, social action, community action, participation, whatever we want to call it, has a rich history which can be traced back to the earliest civilisations and pre-dates more formal volunteering. The point I was trying to make was the need for a better balance between these two important traditions and the need for charities to learn some of the lessons of social action if they want to continue to engage volunteers. As for Investing in Volunteers our latest evaluation shows that many organisations have found it useful in raising awareness of the value of volunteering and driving up practice. We continue to review and update the standard and are keen to ensure that it is of relevance to both formal volunteering and less formal social action.