A nudge in the right direction?

The Giving White Paper wants to inspire a step change in giving time and money, but how easy
will that be? Firstly, the UK is already a highly engaged population. Survey
data shows that non-engagement is small: only around 7 per cent neither volunteer, give
informal help, nor give to charity. Figures highlight both the stability of
volunteering rates, and how these vary according to people’s circumstances.

One can understand why
governments might ask more of their citizens in difficult times, but how much
can people reasonably be expected to do, and where? Does the Giving White Paper give
undue prominence to certain forms of voluntary action while neglecting others?

The paper contains
positive initiatives aimed at increasing levels of giving, but it doesn’t mention
what is probably the largest single element of the “big society”: unpaid care
given to relatives by about 12 per cent of the adult population. Geographically (by
local authority), the proportion of people giving unpaid care is inversely
correlated with the proportion who say they volunteer: as unpaid care goes up,
volunteering rates go down. Public expenditure reductions will fall most
heavily on those communities which are most deprived, and where unpaid care is
most substantial, which is likely to further increase obstacles to involvement
in those areas.

The paper says
little about the distributional effects of voluntary action, but what about
geographical and social divides? Those with the time and resources to be
engaged in their communities tend to be found in the most prosperous
residential neighbourhoods. This reflects residential segregation rather than
some geographical variation in altruistic propensities.

To add to this, voluntary
organisations are likely to be under greatest pressure from public expenditure
cuts in communities where volunteering rates are lowest. Matching organisations
with private businesses and professional skills is also a challenge in
economically remote areas, and reliance on match funding may benefit
communities with the connections and skills to tap business and philanthropic
resources. The new localism seems likely to encourage a greater focus on action
in the immediate neighbourhood, which may not be where support is most needed.

This calls for
creative thought about how needs and resources are matched. It will be
challenging to overcome the obstacles to participation faced by some groups.
Pushing those who are already highly engaged to do more might be unrealistic
and could reinforce inequalities in the extent of voluntary action. Closing the
gaps may require a more co-ordinated effort to challenge disparities in the
resources and opportunities which limit people’s capacity to engage.

John Mohan, Deputy
Director, Third Sector Research Centre