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.