First published by ArtsProfessional, 24 February 2011. www.artsprofessional.co.uk.
One of the contradictions of the Big Society is that volunteering is to be encouraged, yet funding is being cut from many organisations which exist specifically to encourage volunteering.
Arts organisations often rely on volunteers. This is probably more so in the visual arts where many museums are run and staffed by volunteers, but it also applies to the performing arts, from amateur dramatics to volunteer and development boards. Many of the major museums have complex and well-run volunteer programmes, where volunteer numbers frequently run into the hundreds, and these volunteers will often work across a number of organisations. Similarly, The Art Fund for example relies to a significant degree on volunteers to help them run their programmes and to continue their excellent efforts in fundraising.
Governments over the years have recognised that there is a positive benefit to society in encouraging philanthropy and volunteering, although none has achieved nearly enough as yet. But are volunteers and their contribution recognised sufficiently? Arts & Business have sought to shine the spotlight on a few outstanding individuals every year with the Prince of Wales’s Medal for Art Philanthropy, but these are by and large recognition for payments of money in one form or another. Yet when people volunteer, where is the recognition of their valuable time?
Some organisations do recognise in their annual reports that volunteering has contributed x number of hours that are equivalent to y value, presumably based on the equivalent wages they would have to have paid. I do question these values as to whether they truly reflect costs, but that is a separate issue.
What we don’t see, however, is any kind of government recognition.
While Boris tries to come up with a clever new word for philanthropy (and there are plenty of people who have problems pronouncing philanthropy let alone Euergetism, why don’t we see some clear form of acknowledgement for people’s generosity with their time?
If you volunteer one day a week in a museum that’s probably over 350 hours a year, which even at the minimum wage represents over £1,700. If you gave this in cash the organisation you were supporting would benefit to the tune of some £425 from Gift Aid, assuming you are a tax payer. Plenty of trustees will put in an equivalent amount of time at organisations they support by being on boards and sub committees.
Let’s get some kind of system operating whereby organisations can register the hours that people spend on volunteering, and a value is assigned to the total hours for a year. Organisations are then ‘rewarded’ with a tax rebate of 10 or 20% against this value. Technology can help, but the first thing that needs to happen is for the government to support this approach.