Volunteering is worth £34bn a year in support of public services in the UK, new research by the innovation charity Nesta estimates.
The report, People Helping People, calls for the public sector to create more opportunities for people to support each other through social action, which is defined as regular informal and formal volunteering, and community action. Community action is giving unpaid help to support a community event, campaign or project run by neighbours.
Launching the report at an event in London yesterday hosted by Nesta and the Cabinet Office’s Centre for Social Action, Vicki Sellick, a director at Nesta and head of the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, said the £34bn worth of time given a year by volunteers included £22bn worth of formal volunteering, £10bn of informal volunteering and £2bn of community action.
The £34bn figure is an estimate of the economic output value of social action. It excludes charitable giving, which is worth around £10bn a year.
Nesta is running the Centre for Social Action Innovation Fund, in partnership with the Cabinet Office, which is worth £14m and has invested in more than 40 social action innovations so far.
“We know we are facing a constrained public purse. We are not suggesting social action is a panacea and it is not going to work everywhere, but we’ve seen huge action and we know peer support groups can make a huge difference,” Sellick said.
Dementia Friends, launched in February last year by the Alzheimer’s Society, was held up at the event as an example of partnership working across government departments with the voluntary sector. The initiative aims to create one million Dementia Friends, who volunteer and are given training to support people living with dementia.
The report argues that public services should embrace social action in order to increase the resources available to achieve social goals, bring in new expertise and knowledge, reach people that public services are not, and create better services and reciprocal value for the people who give their time.
Social action can “lead to a fundamental change in the way we respond to social needs and challenges”, it says.
Nesta’s report makes a number of recommendations on “making social action the new normal”. It says cultural change is needed to make social action a central consideration when authorities design public services, which needs to be championed from the top by national and local politician, and senior leaders in the public sector.
Staff need to be empowered to find areas where social action would improve services and the outcomes for individuals, it says, and evidence is needed to demonstrate the contribution of social action.
“The system wide changes needed to open up public services to social action won’t be easy to make, there are many challenges and tensions that are not simple to resolve,” the report says.