The pandemic has seen a significant increase in volunteering initiatives, most noticeably the NHS volunteering campaign that was launched during the first lockdown and more recently volunteering in support of the vaccination programme.
There is a huge opportunity to sustain this beyond the pandemic by keeping millions of volunteers active through a scheme to create engaging volunteering opportunities. This would benefit volunteers, for whom volunteering is a fulfilling activity, and the organisations they volunteer with, who can access varied resource by means of volunteers without significant outlay, alike.
Fostering volunteering over the longer term could also help develop a greater sense of community in our society. The pandemic has already started this process, as people have been forced to stay local and have relied on support from community assets including local advice charities, food banks and support networks. We should boost this now through incentivising volunteering with community assets. A greater sense of community is valuable not only to individuals engaging directly with community assets but to society at large: a strong sense of community enriches society.
This scheme can be achieved in combination with a change to council tax policy. Community assets should be rewarded for creating meaningful volunteering opportunities out of ring-fenced community funds established by local authorities using council tax.
Against this backdrop, my proposal is as follows:
(A) A portion of council tax generated by a local authority should be contributed to a new “community fund”. This would not be dependent on council tax increasing, but if council tax does need to be increased, then part of the increase could be ear-marked to establish the community fund, and this may help with the messaging of the increase to the public.
(B) The community fund should be used by the local authority to provide funding to organisations designated as “community assets” by the local authority. These organisations would include locally-focussed charities such as food banks and advice centres. Local authorities could also decide to designate other kinds of organisations as community assets, for example local sports clubs and community centres.
(C) Community assets would be eligible to receive payments from the community fund by reference to the number of volunteer hours they mobilise. Funding from the community fund would therefore be linked to a community asset’s efforts to boost volunteering. To ensure a fair distribution of funding and a meaningful incentive to increase volunteering opportunities: (1) A community asset’s entitlement could be calculated by reference to the number of volunteer hours mobilised in excess of, for example, 80% of the volunteer hours mobilised by the community asset in the preceding year. This would ensure that community assets starting from a lower base are able to access meaningful funding compared with organisations that already mobilise a large number of volunteer hours. (2) Maximum entitlements could be capped.
If managed well, the community fund should be an effective tool to boost community-based volunteering. Community assets would be required to self-assess eligibility for payments, with audits carried out by the local authority to check accurate reporting. Further safeguards exist for community assets which are charities, as these are subject to supervision by the Charities Commission and required to use any funding received in furtherance of their charitable objects.
The proposal has two significant incidental benefits:
(1) Incentivising community assets to mobilise volunteers may in the long term prove a highly efficient use of local authority funding, as volunteers are a low cost resource and, if used effectively, can reduce the need to pay staff salaries or external provider fees.
(2) It rewards volunteers for volunteering with community assets, as their actions will generate funding for the organisations they have chosen to support. Additionally, in the case of council tax payers who are volunteers, they will in effect be channelling a portion of their own council tax contributions to these organisations, thereby converting this tax into donations to their chosen community assets.