Public service work could overburden volunteers, says discussion paper

Heather Buckingham of the Third Sector Research Centre and author of the paper says volunteering should not be seen as a cheap alternative to paid labour

Heather Buckingham
Heather Buckingham

Volunteers are at risk of being overburdened as third sector organisations increase their involvement in delivering public services, an academic paper has suggested.

No Longer a Voluntary Sector?, published today by the Third Sector Research Centre, is the second of five discussion papers that will be produced as part of its Third Sector Futures Dialogues.

Each paper will start a debate about the big issues facing the voluntary sector in England.

The first paper, called The Worst of Times? and published last month, argued that the sector is experiencing significant changes in its relationship with the state.

The latest paper, which starts a debate on the role of volunteering, says the culture of service delivery contracts coupled with a reduction in government funding for public services could lead to excessive work and responsibilities falling to volunteers.  

It also says that it is potentially problematic to rely on untrained or supported volunteers to provide services for beneficiaries with complex needs.

Heather Buckingham, the author of the document and a research fellow at the TSRC, said: "Voluntary action is extremely diverse and we should not underestimate what it can achieve. But it arguably fills some very different functions from paid work, and it is important that we don’t see it as a cheap substitute.

"Increased reliance on volunteers in areas of public service delivery could have significant implications in terms of social justice, and in terms of the consistency and equity of service provision.

"Volunteers cannot necessarily meet the same needs as the welfare state or create universal provision in the way that the state can. It is important that policymakers recognise that volunteer labour is not a free resource. Rather, it comes at a cost to those giving their time and effort and, as such, it cannot necessarily be harnessed towards political goals."

Other points for discussion highlighted by the paper include whether volunteering is increasingly being treated as a form of unpaid labour, and whether the professionalisation of the third sector risks marginalising volunteers.

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