Volunteers: to pay or not to pay?

Do people need material incentives to volunteer? The answer is not easy, writes the chief executive of Volunteering England

Justin Davis Smith, chief executive, Volunteering England
Justin Davis Smith, chief executive, Volunteering England

Should volunteers be offered incentives? There are two camps in this debate, and opinion appears to be polarised beyond resolve

The first is made up of those who want to seek new ways of encouraging volunteering among people who don't usually get involved. The second is made up of those with long-cherished beliefs about how volunteering is distinct from paid work.

Where do I stand? Well, I'm with Jimmy Maxton, the great Independent Labour Clydeside MP of the first half of the 20th century, who (in a very different context) said: "If you can't ride two horses at once, you shouldn't be in the circus." In fact, I think it was "bloody circus", but we will leave it at "circus" for now.

Is Maxton's view a cop-out, an easy option or a case of fence-sitting? I don't think so. The two volunteering camps can be brought together, and both have legitimate arguments.

The first camp believes a concert ticket, a T-shirt or even an iPod might be small change if it encourages a new wave of volunteers. For some people, volunteering is not an attractive proposition, because it is seen as old-fashioned, un-cool, and "not for the likes of me". A small incentive or encouragement might be all that is needed to encourage such people to have a go and, if they like it, to stay involved.

We may even have been using incentives already to convert a new generation of volunteers. The Millennium Volunteers slogan, which called on teenagers to "get an MV on your CV", offered career benefits as an incentive.

And what's wrong with incentives anyway? Surely they suggest volunteering has moved from an old-fashioned, ‘gift' relationship to a more modern, exchange-based one? Isn't it a sign that volunteering has come of age, has moved out of the mire of Victorian philanthropy and noblesse oblige, where the rich give succour to the poor, and onto a more egalitarian footing where everyone can give and everyone can receive at the same time?

Recent debates about linking volunteering to rewards, such as reduced student tuition fees, council tax rebates or fast-tracked citizenship applications, demonstrate there is even potential to regard volunteering as an exchange or contract with the state.

So far, so convincing. But the second camp's view has much to commend it.

Offering incentives might be a slippery slope towards a murky blur between paid and unpaid work, which could herald the demise of volunteering as a force for good. First and foremost, volunteering is a non-financial relationship. To introduce market elements into the equation risks diluting it into an act that no longer has worth.

If the only way we can encourage people to get involved is by bribing them, is that not a problem? Should we not draw out the ‘true' value of volunteering, rebrand it and make it more attractive?

What about volunteer management? Surely happy volunteers will become recruiting sergeants and spread the word? And how many charities considering offering incentives have covered all the basics in terms of good volunteer management, such as the reimbursement of expenses?

Many organisations do not have the money to pay travel costs for even their regular volunteers. Can these groups afford to enter a competition of incentives?

So how can we resolve the debate and bring the two camps together? I believe we need to apply a distinctiveness test to each and every situation.

We need to decide where volunteering stops and something else - be it low-paid work, community action or whatever else - begins. The trick is to be aware that the line may change. It may be all right to offer a concert ticket in return for four hours of volunteering, but substitute a ticket for £75 in cash (the going rate for a top-notch concert at a premier music venue) and the demarcation becomes less clear.

Part of the distinctiveness test should be the incentive, whether it's a material benefit such as a voucher, or a less tangible one such as skills development.

There are legal decisions to support this. Several employment tribunal rulings, outlined in our publication Volunteers and the Law, have drawn attention to the dangers of blurring paid and unpaid work. ‘Consideration' is a clumsy legal term not confined to financial reimbursement. It includes anything with a notional financial value, and has in the past been the litmus test of what is and what is not volunteering.

Offering volunteers an opportunity to take part in training could be legitimate, but legal precedent indicates we should take care to ensure such training is directly relevant to those volunteers' roles.

Living with such ambiguity is not easy. But a movement that accepts truth is not black and white but a murky shade of grey is, I believe, one that has truly come of age. Jimmy Maxton really was right.

Justin Davis Smith is chief executive of Volunteering England


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