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The Third Sector Research Centre has launched the second debate in their series of Third Sector Futures Dialogues.
 
The debate, entitled ‘No longer a voluntary sector?’, focuses on tensions between paid and voluntary work at a time when civic action and volunteering are being heavily promoted by government, and concerns are being raised by some about ‘professionalisation’ of the sector. 
 
A discussion paper, released today, shows that the notion of ‘professionalisation’ is in some senses valid. The number of paid employees in the third sector has grown significantly since 2001. However, the rate of formal volunteering has stayed relatively consistent over the past 20 years suggesting that volunteering has not been crowded out by paid work. More recently, paid employment in the sector has been affected by the recession and cuts.
 
The Centre’s research shows that volunteering is fundamental to some parts of the sector, such as community activity, and may be particularly suited to some roles. Research on homelessness services found that volunteer-run organisations often ‘served functions that family and friends might otherwise have provided, such as companionship, hospitality, emotional support and meeting financial or physical needs in emergencies’.
 
But the Centre raises caution over what can be expected from volunteers, especially if the sector is expected to play a greater role in service delivery. One organisation studied noted that the nature and complexity of their work with service users made it problematic to assume that their services could be run by volunteers. Volunteers need to be recruited, supported and managed, raising concerns about who will pay these costs. 
 
TSRC’s research also highlights the uneven nature of voluntary activity. They identify a ‘civic core’ who contribute the greater proportion of formal volunteering and philanthropy. This civic core is likely to be concentrated in relatively prosperous communities.
The research questions whether the motivation for voluntary activity can be manufactured or moulded to fit policy agendas. Volunteering in community groups was often motivated by specific local or personal concerns as well as the need for social contact and a sense of belonging. It also found that a key strength lay in their ability to operate independently from the state and to maintain a radical ethos. 
 
Heather Buckingham from TSRC, who wrote the paper based on research from across the Centre, 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 policy makers 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.  
 
If we want to attract more people to the sector, it is also vital to think about why people get involved - both as volunteers and paid staff. The campaigning and advocacy roles of voluntary action have received little policy attention – but we might expect these to become more prominent in a context of economic difficulty and social inequality’
 
The research paper raises questions for the second Futures Dialogue.  What roles do we expect paid staff and volunteers to play in the third sector? Do political expectations correspond to the capacity and values of volunteers?  Should voluntary activity play a greater role in tough times? Can governments act to increase and direct voluntary action, or does that contradict its ‘voluntary’ nature?  People can take part in the debate at thirdsectorfutures.org.uk 

Discussion paper: No longer a voluntary sector?

TSRC is hosting the Third Sector Futures Dialogues between September 2012 and April 2013 based on issues raised by our research. Stakeholders can get involved in each debate on the Third Sector Futures website.  A Sounding Board of voluntary, community and policy representatives has been assembled discuss research findings and comments. Our first Sounding Board meeting was held on 11 October, outcomes will be available soon.
 
For more information contact:
Naomi Landau, Knowledge Exchange Team
n.landau@tsrc.ac.uk  
020 7520 2421