What's the true value of our volunteers? Nobody knows.

With millions of people already volunteering in the UK, where will the extra numbers come from for the big society, asks Helen Verney of the London Diocesan Foundation

Helen Verney, finance director, Diocese of London
Helen Verney, finance director, Diocese of London

Sometimes one can't help but be affected by the nation's mood. Tough times are looming and I am going to shake off my usually jovial manner to make a couple of serious points.

It's been a while since I have had a rant about the need to value volunteers in our voluntary sector accounts. I feel a little guilty for having dropped the campaign, which coincided with the death nearly four years ago of Luke FitzHerbert, someone who shared my passion for the debate and whom I greatly admired. Volunteer time is as valuable a resource as money, and trustees have as much responsibility to be stewards of their volunteers as they are of their financial assets. Yet they aren't - because there is no requirement to track and report on it.

Had we succeeded and by now had a couple of years of published figures measuring the collective value of volunteering time in our sector, including some trend data, we would be so much better equipped to respond to the big society idea.

Instinctively, I feel that the big society cannot be achieved from a sudden increase in volunteering. That would require a low-level starting point from which we could step up in a powerful way. Statistics suggest that about 30 million people in the UK already do some kind of formal volunteering each year, which is phenomenal, but I can't prove this because most voluntary organisations don't have up-to-date, sound volunteer databases that give accurate annual statistics. It is impossible to know if the figure is even close.

We do know that there are far more people volunteering in the over-30s category than there are in the under-30s group. I did hope for a while that there would be an increase in the number of younger volunteers, which might in turn help deliver a big society. Unfortunately, having spoken recently to the financial director of the youth charity v - which has had huge success in reaching tough government targets for doing just that over the past few years - I am no longer hopeful. V has received notice of devastating cuts to its funding, which will wipe out its ability to have real impact in the future.

Networks of community organisations with national reach and infrastructure already in place could be more crucial to society in the next few years than ever before, and I can't help feeling that the church is well placed to play a major role in this. But infrastructure alone is not enough: with funding sinking, donated time and skills will play an increasingly important role. I just wish we recognised the need to value it properly.

Finance Advice

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