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So how much is my time worth?

November 4, 2010

I thought that as a volunteer I would never need to think about the financial value of my time. But it seems that under a politically driven Big Society agenda this will become a driving consideration for future volunteering.

I know that my volunteering is not totally selfless. I have, and continue, to use volunteering as a way of connecting with my local community, of using and developing skills, of making new friends and having fun, of feeling good about myself… So what – I consider the value my volunteering brings me, I think everyone else does as well. But the value I accrue from my volunteering is not measureable financially.

I have always liked the fact that basically volunteering is not about material gain. Yes, I know that there are treats and thank yous (or incentivisation and recognition events using the volunteer manager parlance). But these (even if a ticket to a gig) are not a major consideration.

But now there are suggestions, endorsed by government ministers, that things are going to change substantially. Now I will be able to volunteer and earn points that I can redeem in local shops. Now to make the scheme viable, it will need to be more than derisory. I might accept a penny in the pound reward while I’m shopping – but as a volunteer I would feel insulted at a penny an hour. I reckon the rate will need to be more than that unless the government wants to insult us (and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt).

We are told that some activity is more valuable than others, and will be recognised as such through the system. Great. So which is more valuable? The Trustee or the person befriending old people attending the lunch club? The youth team coach, or the person who launders the kit? The fundraiser or the person who sorts stock for the charity shop? The caretaker or the professional expert developing plans for a brand new facility? The list could go on. Apparently frequency and length of time spent volunteering could also play a role. Now that sounds like a kettle of fish.

Not complicated enough yet? There’s more. It is suggested that in the future the care we receive in old age will be linked to the volunteering we do now. It is also suggested that as well as saving the care accrued for myself I could gift this to other people, potentially in other parts of the country.

So many questions! I’ll try to restrict myself to volunteering related ones:

  • Who is going to determine which roles qualify as volunteering, and their value/hour? Presumably there needs to be consistency about this. Does this imply that everything needs to be formalised and processed (presumably through a new quango or massive contracted out national IT programme)? Or is it, as Mr Cameron suggests, all to be taken on trust?
  • While thinking about qualifying roles – who can be appealed to if a role is deemed not to be a Big Society appropriate one? Are we to see increased political control of what we do outside of work? Think about it…
  • We know that the technology exists to award and redeem points – but volunteering is not the same as doing the weekly shop or topping up the fuel tank. If points are going to be able to be spent, how are they to be processed? Unless taken on trust (and we know people even cheat at Foursquare!) Will there need to be a points issuing machine at every venue that volunteers are engaged in activity?
  • The data that is collected will have value (have you read the recent press coverage about the people behind the Tesco Club Card and the commercial results of their activity?) How will we know that commercially valuable information about us gained through our volunteering activity is not abused by this or future governments?
  • If we are all to volunteer to gain care (assuming an hour now is worth an hour then), could we be in a position where we have 30 million people all trying to do 7 hours of volunteering a week? Who on earth is going to develop and manage all of this volunteering? Volunteer management is already under-resourced, and today I read an interesting blog on the need for more support for volunteering. A question made even harder to answer given the current financial climate – for example Somerset County Council is cutting all funding to its Rural Community Council, Councils for Voluntary Service, Volunteer Centres, etc and has also cut all of its funding to arts, culture and heritage organisations.
  • The systems for Timebanking already exist. But Timebanks appear to be working within local communities, with limited numbers of people, based on trust and relationships, and with redemption of credits over a relatively short period of time. To me that is their glory (and it would be great to see more of them). But it is very different from a system that we all engage in.
  • Will this lead to a two tier volunteering system where those organisations with approved opportunities flourish, and there is a Below the Radar world of activity deemed undesirable or not worthy by the state, or which is not able to be structured enough to participate (and what will this do to the existing Below the Radar sector described in a new report by the Third Sector Research Centre).

Oh, I can’t help myself…

  • Will the points I earn be taxable? Or have I found a way of doing what rich people do and minimising how much I contribute financially to our national life?
  • If I spend all my points down the shops, will someone still look after me when I am old? Can I have a look at the new social contract please?
  • How many favours for my family and friends can I turn into reward based transactions without alienating them?


Let’s be honest. What is being proposed isn’t volunteering. So please stop calling it that.

Volunteering is great because it is a gift. Compulsion changes everything. Timebanking is great because it builds social capital in local communities.

If Big Society is doing stuff for reward in order to have a good time now and be cared for in my old age that sounds like work, pay and taxation. If we need to do more work and pay more tax, then be honest about it, don’t call it volunteering and don’t try to mask it as Big Society.

Let’s not spoil what we’ve got in order to enter into an experiment that even Lord Wei is reputed to have said that elements of which might be a pipe dream, and which Patrick Butler says is not for everyone. If this is what the architects and proponents of Big Society think then I think it is time to step back from the precipice before we end up with a Broken and Irreparable Society.



In case you weren’t sure, although I am aware of what I gain out of my volunteering these concerns are secondary to the difference I can make to the lives of others through what I do. I would hate it if this was changed because of the politicisation of civil society structures and processes.


  1. Really interesting. You make lots of good points…I hope someone from the government reads this.

  2. Thanks Claire – it would be good if they did!

  3. Thoughtful stuff.

    The time banks don’t consider any activity as more valuable than any other but you are the first person I’ve come across expressing the idea that some activities might be thought ‘not Big Society appropriate’. Now THAT’S scary.

    Any link with goods in the shops will invite HMRC attention. I know a pharmacy that offers 10% discount to time bank members but that’s because they think the members do ‘good things’.

    Our network – is cross-borough but time banks serving local urban communities do tend to stick to a members within about a ten minute walk – less for the elderly and disabled. is an interesting attempt to develop timebanking across a borough and bring in more organisations then most time banks. Theoretically all time banks can exchange with all other time banks throughout the world though.

    I’ve only started exploring how time banks and conventional volunteering can work together. An obvious one is letting all volunteers earn credits. If they don’t want to use or keep those credits they can either donate them to whoever they wish to help or let the time bank distribute them to people who genuinely can’t give much back or use them in community projects.

    • Thanks for the additional information about Timebanks, Peter.I had to cut lots from my post as it was way too long.

      In terms of the value put on time, I have come across this when it comes to trying to quantify volunteer input to an organisation. I know some charity finance directors and treasurers would love to have a cash value to measure impact of any investment made in volunteering and be able to report it in their accounts. But, for me the comments from Windsor and Maidenhead about some volunteering being worth more than valuable than others were very worrying.

      Over the past few months there have been suggestions of a worthiness index for charities; the role of campaigning has been questioned (whether through established organisations or through free association of individuals). My fear is that, with Big Society being so closely linked to one political party (it is not a coalition-wide agenda) and a link of volunteering to material reward – the ability for government to intervene in civil society activity to say what volunteering is or is not acceptable becomes scarily close. I remember when the old Compact Code on Volunteering was drafted that a lot of effort was put into ensuring that volunteering wasn’t constrained by these sort of considerations – I hope that is not all about to change.

      I have a horrible feeling that these ideas are being turned into policy without adequately thought through. Some of them, albeit in some different guises, have been mooted before and not got far. I guess we will have to live with the consequences – I hope that our politicians remember that once Pandora’s Box is opened it is impossible to go back to how it was before.

      Will be great to hear how the new initiatives you mention get on.

  4. I have never tried to equate volunteer time to money. That’s biz-think and it just doesn’t fit what I see.

    If you put in your reports volunteer hours equated to the minumum wage (which I’ve seen done) are you putting a low value on the input of volunteer website designers, fund-raisers, expert trustees or pro bono lawyers. On the other hand, they are volunteering their time so what have market rates for their skills got to do with it?

    How do you deal with a disabled website designer who takes three times as long to produce a piece of work for you? In a time bank they’ll ‘earn’ three times as much. (Tut, tut.)

    How do you deal with activities like, say, befriending your dad or picking up your kids from school when they have no market value?

    It just doesn’t work.

    PS. Sorry the Istime website is down today. It is maybe worth a look later to see what sort of skills and knowledge people exchange out in the real world.

    • Putting a cash value on volunteering (whether for accounts, for recognition, or to buy future care) seems wrong to me to. Surely, the real value of volunteering is much more intangible for the volunteer, the beneficiaries and the host organisations (where they exist). There will always be anomalies in working out things, but as soon as cash, or cash value, gets to be part of the equation the anomalies harm people.

      I must admit I don’t Timebank cos I tend to just gift my time – maybe I should look into it.

  5. Wow! Nice article. I like it. 😉

  6. Great stuff Chris. I find it laughable when Dorset County Council requires the community development trust to “cost” and “value” our volunteer time for their records. OK I know it’s to show whether the Volunteer Centre has met its targets, but honestly! And DCC used the Lottery’s preferred “grading” of volunteer time, to which you refer. So I am a £5ph volunteer when I staff the Community Resource Centre on a Monday afternoon, because the tasks are photocopying and helping the public. A cheap, low-value task, apparently! When I am contributing at Trustee meetings I am a £20ph volunteer because I am seen as having governance responsibilities. When I do fundraising bids or draw up a business plan for the new Craft Units, I am a £30-50ph volunteer as this is “professional” work given freely. But I’m still me. And of course I haven’t actually SAVED our little charity this money, because they wouldn’t have paid for it to be done, so the paper “value” that the County Council and in future the government will place on volunteering is just that – a paper value.

    And while I’m ranting (no change there, then!), I find the Lottery’s “suggested” values for different tasks highly offensive. OK I understand them and am merely amused as I shift from being valuable to being cheap without moving from the chair (!), but personally I object to writing something in a fundraising bid that I wouldn’t be prepared for every volunteer in the organisation to read – and many volunteers would be offended by being “valued” at less than another volunteer.

    So is the Big Society going to be divisive? It looks that way to me!!!

  7. What a great post Chris, thanks for your thoughts i cant help wondering if this idea has not been dreamt up to in some way quantify how brilliant this new colation goverenment wants us to think they are.

    Having said that though if this encourages new volunteers who dont see the act of volunteering as a gift then this has to be a good thing, doesnt it???

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