Schools and hospitals should ask people to give something back, says Nesta chief

Geoff Mulgan calls on these institutions to ask people who have used their services for donations or to volunteer

Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta
Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of Nesta

State schools and hospitals should ask those who have used their services to give something back by volunteering or donating money, according to Geoff Mulgan, chief executive of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

Mulgan was last night giving the volunteering charity CSV’s Edith Kahn Lecture, which is given annually in memory of Kahn, a headteacher and the organiser of the charity’s retired and senior volunteers scheme. She died in 1988.

Mulgan said the concept of reciprocity should be more "embedded" in society. "Elite schools do very well in asking for donations from their pupils, as do elite universities," he said. "But very little of this happens in state schools and colleges. Hospitals do great things for people but don’t ask for anything in return.

"I’m not saying you should have a collecting tin rattled at you as you leave the surgery," he said. "And there is a legitimate view that having paid your taxes you should just receive your public services without any extra being asked.

"But a huge amount of latent generosity just goes to waste, and, paradoxically, people feel worse as a result, because if there is one strong finding from research on happiness it is that giving something, thanking, makes us feel better."

Mulgan said some people chose not to give to charities because they felt "threatened, humiliated or not respected by the chugger or the assertive advertisement asking you to support a cause". He said others chose not to because they did not feel a connection with the cause of a charity, and said this was why hospitals and schools should approach those who had used their services and ask them for support.

His comments echo those made by the former shadow Cabinet Office minister Tessa Jowell, who told the Labour Party conference in September that a future Labour government would ask people who used public services to "give something back in return".

During the lecture, Mulgan discussed "choice architecture", which he said was a term used by behavioural economists to describe the fact that people’s decisions are influenced by the context in which they are made. "This is hugely important for volunteering and its future, just as it is a significant part of explaining why some people riot," he said.

He said the concept should be used to create a huge increase in charitable giving and volunteering.

"Imagine if there was as much advertising and communication about how we might share our time as there is about goods," he said.

"Imagine that timebanks and carebanks became as visible as monetary banks, perhaps embedded in daily institutions.

"Imagine more ubiquitous prompting to give. We’ve now followed countries like Spain in prompting charitable giving at cash machines and on tax forms, and there are many other places where similar prompts could be made automatic."

Mulgan also said there should be digital notice boards at train stations listing the community activities taking place in the local area, and that computer games should find ways to "integrate giving and sharing".

He said every employer should ask staff during appraisals whether they had thought about volunteering, and that the honours system should have a more local focus and should give more recognition to "the people who give and share their time selflessly".

"None of this is far-fetched and elements of all of these examples already exist," he said.

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