Wally Harbert: Is your organisation bottom-up or top-down?

More research is needed about the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to volunteering, says our guest online columnist

Wally Harbert
Wally Harbert

For more than two centuries, two distinct types of volunteering have been clearly discernible in the UK, but few studies have attempted to differentiate between them. This has led to misunderstandings and tensions.

Most volunteering that is written about is "top-down", a style commonly adopted by large philanthropic organisations whose glory days were at the end of the 19th century. Their volunteers are marshalled by trustees and managers who determine policies, procedures and priorities. The buzzwords in these organisations are "management", "accountability" and, more recently, "contracts". 

The high water mark for top-down volunteering was reached in 2008 with Volunteer England’s Manifesto for Change, which almost totally ignored bottom-up approaches.  

By contrast, in bottom-up or community-based volunteering, volunteers identify social problems in their communities and search for ways of resolving them. The origins of this mode of working are the medieval guilds, as well as 19th-century friendly societies and trades unions, where control lay in the hands of service users or their representatives. This is unmistakably the native soil of the big society, which perhaps explains the hostility with which it has been received by top-down organisations. The buzzwords and phrases are "empowerment", "self-fulfilment" and "local ownership".  

Top-down or philanthropic volunteering tends to be centralised with hierarchical structures, whereas community-based organisations disperse power more evenly; they are generally smaller and are more likely to be managed by volunteers. It is now widely understood that community improvement requires the empowerment of local people rather than franchising paid staff to speak and act on their behalf.  

Many philanthropic organisations make strenuous efforts to utilise and develop the creativity of their volunteers and recognise that, to attract post-war generations, they must involve them in decision-making. Meanwhile, community-based organisations commonly battle to reconcile devolved power with satisfactory managerial and administrative structures. Thus, each recognises the weaknesses inherent in its model and attempts to capture some of the defining characteristics of the other.  

Organisations can move between categories. In recent years, some charities have jettisoned their bottom-up status to attract government contracts, replacing volunteers with staff and more centralised control.  

On the other hand, a recent report from Strathclyde University suggested that personalised care could see "the end of voluntary organisations as large-scale employers". (Public Sector Austerity, Personalisation and the Implications for the Voluntary Sector Workforce, by Professor Ian Cunningham and Professor Dennis Nickson.)

The clash of underlying values in top-down and bottom-up volunteering creates confusion and misunderstandings that are compounded by changes in the way services are being delivered. We need a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses inherent in top-down and bottom-up volunteering and how each can enhance the satisfaction of volunteers. Does anyone know of any relevant research studies that might advance our knowledge?

Wally Harbert has held senior positions in the voluntary sector and is a former president of the Association of Directors of Social Services. His book Baby Boomers and the Big Society was published in March 2012 by Grosvenor House Publishing


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