Voluntary Action – reflections on Volunteering Victoria’s conference: the ‘Power of Association’.

Social Policy Whisperer Professor Paul Smyth reflects on the recent Volunteering Victoria annual conference and its attempts to reframe volunteering not as a replacement to the welfare state but as central to the workings of a good society - at risk from the encroaching role of for-profit players in historically not-for-profit environments.

Volunteering Victoria’s recent annual conference focussed on ‘The Power of Association’.  With a bumper attendance and vibrant esprit de corps I was impressed all over again by the kinship of volunteers with not-for-profit welfare agencies.  Indeed it is their shared foundation in voluntary action which enables them together to make their distinctive social value add.  We learnt that the volunteer army in Australia numbers almost 3 million and that four out of five not-for-profits rely on some form of volunteer support. 

A theme of the conference was the need to ‘reframe Voluntary Action’.  I have attended a number of such gatherings over the last decade and often had the sense that volunteering was seen as a kind of an honourable but rather optional affair on the fringes of the real worlds of governments and markets.  Sure, somebody would usually tote up a very large dollar value that could be attached to these activities but even that still left a lingering feeling of ‘so what?’.

But as Jeni Warburton reported from her recent Volunteering in Australia (Oppenheimer and Warburton 2015) the politics of volunteering today is in some confusion – not least because of Big Society fantasies of volunteers replacing the welfare state. What was new at this conference was the attempt to reframe voluntary action in a way that makes it much more central to the workings of a good society and with governance regimes which support this role.

This shift of emphasis had a keen edge for a world where many are alienated from the political order.  It resonated in the discussion of active or ‘thick’ citizenship in which voluntary and not-for-profit associations become a third organising force in society alongside state and market.  The presence of so many volunteers with the energy and skills to reshape our society was a palpable experience of a third estate with its own contribution to make without being at the beck and call of public service commissioners or in some kind of pointless rivalry with the for-profit sector. 

What is sorely needed is a policy which can distinguish the separate contributions of these three sectors to the common good together with governance rules which shore up their distinctive contributions.

All of this was given a finer edge in the discussion following David Tennant’s (CEO of Family Care in Shepparton) outline of Section 7.2 of the Productivity Commission’s draft report (June 2017) to introduce for-profits into family and community services. This reiterates the economic rationalist assumption that organising social services should be no different to beer and pizzas.  Tennant argued that building communities and strengthening democracy requires a different way with the community.  Beyond individual service transactions, he explained, the nature of social services' relationship to communities releases additional social value through engaging volunteers and creating other opportunities for forms of localised altruism and philanthropy.

Additionally they give people a voice over the decisions that affect their lives through inputs into policy making and service development which play a vital role in creating a vibrant and pluralist democracy.  All of these values, he thought, are endangered by the introduction of for-profits, an issue which he thought the PC has not pursued with due diligence.

While very much a practitioner’s perspective Tennant’s views are actually backed up strongly by what I would see as mainstream social policy scholarship in Australia (see writings of Eva Cox, Susan Goodwin and Gabrielle Meagher, as well as Power to Persuade's publications on the future of social services).  Their emphasis is on a triadic form of governance in which one sector does not colonise another.   This view has been recently buttressed by none other than R E Goodin, the internationally distinguished philosopher from the ANU, in his invited paper for the 100th Anniversary Colloquium of the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics.

We cannot rehearse the whole paper here but we should take note of his takeaway messages.  While the colloquium focussed on the state of key policy areas of the welfare state, Goodin said he was more concerned with the damage to social policy governance structures. ‘I am more worried about… the basic architecture of the welfare state’, he said, namely the unbalancing of state, market and charitable sector. His central argument was that introducing for profits undermines voluntary action and in three ways. 

First, following Titmuss’s gift relationship and a variety of evidence from social psychology he shows just why altruism dries up when you start paying people for the same kind of activity.  ‘Money contaminates higher motives’ and people take their altruism elsewhere.

Secondly he says that contestability leads to non-trust based regulatory regimes which eliminate the differences between sectors.  Finally he thought that the kinds of trust-based partnerships possible with not-for-profits become impossible with the ‘corner cutting and undercutting’ which is the institutionalised interest of for profits.  Goodin concludes bluntly that social services partnerships should be restricted to not-for-profits and, in a sentiment echoed in numerous submissions to the PC: ‘no one should profit from another person’s misery’.

Tennant’s case then has clearly crystallised a fundamental issue for the theory and practice of voluntary action in Australia.  The Productivity Commission’s continuing blueprint for downgrading public service and voluntary organisation vis-à-vis market mechanisms needs to be recognised as the artefact of a neoconservative ideology which has run its course.  For the good of society and the future of democracy the presumptive preference for market mechanisms should be abandoned once and for all.


Oppenheimer, M and Warburton, J (2014) Volunteering in Australia, Federation Press, Sydney.

Goodin, R E (2015) 'The End of the Welfare State?', London School of Economics Department of Social Policy's 100th Anniversary Colloquium, LSE Academic Publishing, London, United Kingdom, pp. 4-11.

Posted by @jrostant