Volunteering and public services: what next?

NCVO’s National Volunteering Forum today discussed what charities might learn from how statutory bodies including local government, the police and the fire service involve volunteers. In a piece much longer than my normal blog posts, here is my opening speech.

NCVO National Volunteering Forum – the future of volunteering and the public services

Good morning everyone, and welcome to NCVO. I’m pleased that we continue to host the National Volunteering Forum, a space where we can come together and discuss issues that relate to the future of volunteering and the role of volunteer involving organisations.

Not only is today’s event sold out, but we have a long waiting list. It may well be the case – maybe – that volunteering is more worthy of discussion and debate than it has been in previous years. Indeed, we are keen that a debate about the role of volunteering in our society takes place. Some of you will have read Stuart Etherington’s letter to the voluntary sector, published earlier this week on the NCVO website, where we have outlined our thinking so far. I’d like to begin today’s forum by outlining some of our thinking around volunteering, particularly in relation to public services, and ask whether indeed our time is now.

So, let’s look ahead and ask ourselves: is now the time for a step change in the vision and aspirations we hold for volunteering in this country, particularly in relation to services used by the public?

Public services: A burning platform?

When asking questions like this, it’s typical in change management circles to invoke some sort of crisis-type metaphor that is a clarion call for change. So, this last few weeks we’ve had the argument that public service managers, particularly those in the NHS, are standing on a burning platform: demand massively outstripping supply, illustrated by stories of patients waiting in A&E for hours on end or left stranded on trolleys in hospital corridors, an NHS in crisis. So, we have no alternative but to put out the fire, almost certainly at great expense, or abandon the platform and jump, the fix here being to go down a completely different path. This inevitably involves break up and the transfer of more risk and responsibility for solutions to individuals.

In this sort of analysis, volunteering is both enemy and saviour. It is the enemy to those who wish to invest more in our public services, as they see volunteering as a cover for cuts. Job substitution is inevitably wheeled out as a threat to professionals and those who depend on services alike, with volunteering caricatured as well-meaning amateurism.

Conversely, volunteering is the saviour to those who wish to invoke the blitz spirit, including its more modern incarnations such as the riots clean-up. In this analysis volunteers are knights, the mirror image of the knaves currently staffing our public services, whose primary interest is in restricting practices and avoiding being held to account. All we need to do is get the state out of the way and people will rise up and volunteer in their millions.

While I am somewhat caricaturing these sides of the debate, I do so because it feels to us at NCVO that is how much of the current debate about volunteering and public services is framed. Yet both sides do a disservice to where we already are. The naysayers fail to recognise the extent to which volunteers are already involved in the delivery of services used by the public. In their mirror image, the proponents of civil society risk raising false expectations that an army of volunteers can suddenly replace the people and structures of institutions that have been honed for decades. They fail to recognise the passionate professionalism and commitment of paid staff. In their defence, neither side are well served by the current extent of our knowledge about the role of volunteering in public services, which in my opinion is neither sufficiently broad nor deep, and certainly not sufficiently well communicated. More of that later.

I say all of this because an argument based on public services in crisis might not be the best basis for the debate about the role of volunteering that we think we need. Nevertheless, our world is changing and I think there are longer term arguments about why volunteering needs to play a bigger role. By the way, the last CEO to invoke the burning platform argument didn’t result in it working out well for the staff or the users.

The road ahead: Long-term challenges of social and demographic change

It’s now almost a decade since the crash of 2008. Although public spending initially increased, since 2010 we have lived through a period of constrained public spending, particularly planned spending by government departments (as opposed to annually managed expenditure such as pensions). Local authorities have been particularly squeezed, and will continue to be squeezed as their balance of funding shifts from centrally distributed block grants to locally raised taxes and fees. Local government is actively searching for a different operating model.

Just as important as changes in public spending are the increases in demand for public services that result from the UK’s changing demographics and social attitudes. Our population is not only ageing and growing in size, but it is also more diverse and more atomised. There are more single person households, while the increase in social mobility that some of us have benefited from means that we are more likely to be geographically distant from our families. This is building in a greater propensity to use public services.

And as we live longer, and are better able to address acute health issues, we are living longer, but potentially living with more chronic – and expensive – conditions such as diabetes. And we are of course becoming more demanding of the services we receive: public services have become more transactional, with users behaving more like consumers.

Where once talk of an ageing population was the domain of futurologists, and belatedly actuaries, it is now the reality for those delivering public services and those planning their future. This is all placing huge and rapidly rising demand upon our public services. The NHS budget alone will need to rise by 2% every year for the next 50 years, and take a greater share of our national wealth, according to the OBR earlier this week. And the NHS has a level of public support that other services do not. Raising taxes to support better quality services in areas such as policing or libraries may be more difficult to carry politically.

There is an important debate also about the impact of short-term reductions in spending on services such as policing, libraries and green spaces. But I am conscious that this risks the debate about volunteering quickly becoming over-politicised or becoming party political. We are therefore interested in how we build consensus around the role of volunteering.

Finally, in an era where trust in all institutions is falling, we should not even take public support for publicly funded services for granted. In an era where trust in professionals and experts is seemingly fragile, and we are seemingly willing to trust those we perceive to be ‘one of us’, we may need to think differently about how we configure and deliver services. Not least of this is the yearning for smaller or more local services where, to borrow from the now infamous phrase, people feel more in control.

Amidst these long-term, slow burning changes, it is time now to increase the level of debate around the role of volunteering. We believe that we can only address the pressures that our society and our public services will face if we raise awareness among politicians and policy makers about the role and potential for volunteering, identify and agree the changes we as volunteer involving organisations need to make to realise that potential. And we of course need a debate with the public about how we build upon the extensive levels of volunteering and other forms of social action already taking place, wherever that activity takes place. A starting point for me is to quote Rob Jackson – it’s not about doing more with less, it’s about doing more with different resources. So, how different is different?

Volunteering at the heart of services used by the public

A starting point for any debate has to be the current extent and role of volunteering in services used by the public. I mentioned at the outset that Stuart Etherington’s letter to the voluntary sector aimed to begin a debate, but a letter to the voluntary sector in and of itself is not targeted broadly enough. As our audience today demonstrates, volunteering is already integral to the public services. The boundaries between the public, private and voluntary sectors are blurring, but so too are job roles. There is also more movement of people between sectors, and this has been accompanied by an increase in volunteering in the public sector.

But it strikes me that this is still in many respects under the radar. I don’t think we are doing nearly enough to bring together the insights we have about trends in volunteering in the public services, nor about the sorts of roles that volunteers undertake. I would argue to you that until we have better data we wont be able to highlight the importance of this contribution and, more importantly, undertake a more informed debate about roles and responsibilities, about the barriers and opportunities for volunteering, and of course the limits to what volunteers can and cannot or should not do.

A discussion about the opportunities and limits to volunteering strikes me as important. Too much of this debate remains ideological in nature, while in my limited experience there isn’t a huge amount of sharing what works across the different public services. It seems perfectly acceptable for a volunteer to perform a role such as handling cash or sensitive data in one service but not another.

If we look back to a decade ago, maybe less, a regular topic of conversation was should charities run prisons? More recently, we are having similar discussions about volunteers running libraries. These are contested areas, involving difficult questions about the moral limits of non-statutory involvement in services or about letting local authorities off the hook when it comes to their statutory responsibilities. We also know that its simply the case that volunteers are waiting in the wings to take over roles performed by paid staff – in fact, the contrary is the case. I doubt anyone in a volunteering role wishes to deprive someone of a job.

We similarly need to make the case that much of what volunteers and charities can do is wrapped around our public services, that early intervention in the form of activities such as mentoring and befriending or activities to facilitate independent living are just as important. Sectoral boundaries are thinking should be left behind.

Building the case

So, we need to know how practice is evolving and how these tensions are resolved. I’d like to see something like a ‘What Works Centre’ for volunteering in the public services, or if you prefer a NICE for volunteering. And if we can’t do this, then we need to influence the other what works centres to commission their own work on volunteering, ideally using a common analytical framework.

It’s critical here that we address in robust fashion the reality that volunteering has costs associated with any activity. I find it disappointing that too often we still talk to people in government who think that volunteering is a free good, that it emerges spontaneously without the need for organisation. It does – but as we see in humanitarian crises where volunteers spontaneously arrive, disorganised volunteering can do more harm than good. So we need a robust debate, based on evidence, around the costs of volunteering. And I think this in turn needs to generate practical benchmarking tools for volunteer managers.

I’d also like to see us bring together in one place more of the great examples of where volunteering is making a difference in the public services so that we can help policymakers, politicians, the media and the public understand better how volunteers work alongside, rather than simply substitute paid staff. So to return to my example of charities and prisons, highlighting projects like the Samaritans’ prison listeners project, which aims to reduce levels of self-harm and suicide. I’m a great fan here of the Academy of Fabulous NHS Stuff or SOFII for the fundraising community. And, of course, Volunteers’ Week, where statutory bodies are increasingly engaged.

If we’re going to build the case, it’s not enough just to have statistics. We also need stories – people may forget what you said, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. We have so many feel-good stories about volunteering, but maybe we need to get better at bringing them together.

I’ve implicitly focused here on the role of volunteers providing services, but we also need to continue to make the case that the role of volunteering in services to the public includes other activities. In particular, the role of volunteers in campaigning shouldn’t be underestimated as a way of making the case for services and creating the space and urgency for politicians and policymakers to take action – look at mental health and the Time to Change coaltion, or the Black Mental Health Network, who the PM cited.

[NB Following the speech, Rob Jackson argued that an important role we should also value is the role of volunteers in holding public services to account, whether formally as trustees and governors, or informally as members of the public who are invited into what might otherwise be closed or opaque institutions. I agree completely, hence its inclusion here.]

I am also reminded on a frequent basis by my friend Duncan Tree at Volunteering Matters that volunteering is a public health issue too – that taking up volunteering is good for your own health and wellbeing, and this will reduce pressure on our services. I am not a huge fan of Andy Haldane’s argument that volunteering is equivalent to stopping smoking 10 cigarettes a day, but there is no doubt is has achieved widespread resonance. It has undoubtedly helped to make the case in places where it wasn’t previously heard.

We need more of this, including getting more of the Andy Haldane’s of this world talking about volunteering and its impact.

We need to better support volunteer management

The final point I wish to make builds on my earlier remark about costs, and that is how do we shift policy and practice more in the direction of supporting good quality, effective volunteer management.

It strikes me that too much of our effort in public policy is about filling the hopper: how do we get more people to volunteer. But I am reminded by the CEO of one national volunteer involving organisation, that every strategic plan for the last 80 years began with the concern that ‘there isn’t going to be enough volunteers’. It’s not a problem that they’ve yet had to deal with.

We know that the voluntary impulse in this country is strong. Always has been.

That continuing supply might however reflect their investment in the volunteer experience. We at NCVO think that we need to shift the debate to being more about retention, to being more about the volunteer experience and, yes, the impact of volunteering. Few companies in the private sector have found a successful business model based on constantly attracting new customers and not caring about existing ones.

So we need better tools and benchmarks about costs, impact and return on investment if we are to make the case. This isn’t simply pandering to bean counters: we know from numerous surveys of the millennial generation that their biggest pet peeve is not knowing whether their gift, whether of time or of money, has made a difference.

There is no way around it: we have to raise the profile of volunteer management and make the case for spending hard-pressed resources on this activity. NCVO and others can do this, but we need help. Rob Jackson issued a call to arms to volunteer managers and their various associations to make this case. This is good and I would encourage others to join this debate. For our part, NCVO will work with our partners including Volunteering Matters to make the case to senior leaders across all sectors. We are of course open to suggestions as to where, when and how.


I have inevitably raised more questions than answers in seeking to further the points already made by Stuart Etherington. But today is about trying to take the debate forward and share learning so that we can better answer my questions.

For those reading this speech and not at the event, you can look at our conversations on social media via the #volforum hashtag and see the presentations on the NCVO website. Above all, join in the conversation, or host your own, so that we can develop consensus about building the fantastic thing that is volunteering in the UK.


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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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