Accounting: Volunteers get as much as they give

Readers of a certain age may recall an unforgivable 1970s country music song by Melba Montgomery called No Charge.

It recounts the tale of an enterprising little boy who hopes to earn a bit of pocket money by doing his mother's household chores.

Mercifully, the song pre-dated video technology, but we can imagine the self-pity dripping out as the mother puts herself feet first through the mangle, reminding her son that he owes her big time for all the suffering and toil she's endured for him.

Consigned for a good couple of decades to the safer depths of my subconscious, No Charge rather disturbingly resurfaced in my mind three or four years ago. The cause appears to have been the debate that was then taking place about including in the Charity Commission's Statement of Financial Activities some kind of monetary value for the contribution made by a charity's volunteers.

The gift of time, it was argued, was so important to some organisations that failing to reflect it in primary financial statements was to misrepresent the scale of charities' work. The only things stopping us from including volunteer time as an incoming resource were the question of how to value donated time and the administrative headache of recording it all.

But should we even have got as far as considering these practical difficulties?

There is an important issue of principle, too. We do not give up our time to charities in the same way that we might give money. Time spent volunteering brings all sorts of rewards to the individual concerned, whether they be training, social networks, boosted egos, enhanced CVs or simple distraction from our work (or lack of it).

I can't be the only volunteer whose involvement has enriched me far more than it has helped any one of the people 'my' charities are there to serve.

From fellow volunteers, from people with learning disabilities, from homeless people and from refugees, I've learned things that have inspired me, influenced me and, in certain cases, changed the course of my life.

One thing that a charity can do well is create a community of participants in different roles, and everyone who is involved in that community benefits from it in different ways.

My hope (a faint one, I admit) is that by the time the next Sorp debate gets into full swing, we will have shaken off the patronising notion that charity volunteers' time is a unique, one-way contribution to society.

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