Volunteering: measuring what counts

During Volunteers’ Week last month an article appeared with the headline, Volunteers worth £500m to the NHS. To quote one of the opening lines:

The country’s healthcare system is being supported by 1.9 million volunteers, worth almost £500m to the NHS, according to a new study.

This prompted some discussion on the UKVPMs discussion group for volunteer managers. On one side of the debate were those who felt this headline helped to showcase the importance of volunteering to our society. On the other side were those who felt such headlines do more harm than good.

I can see both sides of the argument. Volunteer managers and others in the volunteering movement use figures like this because it speaks the language of those who make decisions over budgets: what I refer to as the language of the bean counters. Take the hours worked by volunteers, multiply them by some notional wage figure and voilà, we have a figure for the “value” of volunteers, or how much we didn’t have to pay people to do the work. So we hear stories of volunteering being worth £40bn to the economy – powerful stuff when we are arguing for more influence, support and resource.

The problem is that notional wage calculations like this do not really calculate value, or outputs, outcomes or impact. They calculate the alternative cost of an input, in this case what we might have to pay people to do the work volunteers do. This leads to problems – here are just two:

1.     Notional wage calculations suggest that if we stop paying people to do some jobs and get volunteers in as an alternative then we will save millions of pounds. No wonder some employees feel their job security may be threatened by volunteers.

2.     Notional wage calculations fail to tell the broader story of volunteering; for example how it helps the volunteer as well as the beneficiary of their service. Studies have shown that volunteering improves physical and mental health, extends our lives and even gives us a better sex life. None of that is reflected in a purely economic calculation and is surely of more value when seeking to celebrate the power of volunteering.

A far more elegant and effective alternative to notional wage calculations would work something like this: we find out what it will save the country if a young offender is helped not to re-offend (government must have data like this); we examine the efficacy of volunteer programmes to help prevent youth re-offending (e.g. a 60 per cent success rate); we link the two together to give a financial value for the outcomes of work done by such volunteers.

This may not be as simple and easy as just multiplying hours by minimum wage, but it would do a much better job of telling the story of volunteers in our society, and do it in a way that doesn’t encourage poor decision-making about what volunteers and employees should do.

In the context of the ongoing talk about measuring impact in the sector, I hope someone will step up to lead on helping us all do a better job of showing the immense contribution volunteers make to the UK. We need it and they definitely deserve it.