Sponsored Volunteering for Social Value

  

Volunteers (film)

Some typical volunteers

Just Giving advertises on its homepage that over £1 billion has been raised by individuals through the site. Over the entire voluntary sector, income from individuals remains the most important funding stream, accounting for £13.1bn (37%) of its total £35.5bn annual income. With this kind of money involved, market forces should (hopefully) be operating to ensure that causes are funded according to their worth. But the sponsorship ‘market’ at the moment seems inefficient at allocating money directly to charities, and misses out on an enormous amount of potential value in the type of sponsored activities it rewards.

So, what are you funding when you sponsor someone for charity? Individual fundraising for charities can be split into four categories, depending on what donations fund, and the value of the activity to the named charity:

                              Donations
 Value of the activity to the named charity   Fund voluntary activity Donated to charity
Low Treks, expeditions e.g. climbing Mount Kilimanjaro Doing something difficult/inane e.g. running a marathon/growing a moustache
High On-site volunteering e.g. school building, teaching abroad Any low-cost volunteering e.g. sponsored volunteering for Crisis at Christmas

 

The first category is the most dubious – fundraisers essentially ask you to pay for their holiday, with any excess being donated to the named charity (if they are raising money for an environmental charity, they would do well to look at the size of their carbon footprint). If the fundraiser does something useful when abroad, it is easier to justify sponsoring their expenses, with the understanding that they do good work on their travels. This model is also used domestically for on-site conservation work, and may be unavoidable when volunteering incurs significant expenses.

Sponsorship can alternatively go straight to the named charity, when the cost of the activity is low. Again, sponsored activities vary in their use to society. For one reason or another, the default activity here is long-distance running. Because of the negligible costs, all money raised can be passed on to the named charity. The activity itself doesn’t directly benefit the charity though.

Sponsored volunteering (SV) offers a way for the fundraiser to directly help the charity achieve its aims. The format is identical to normal fundraising; the fundraiser just chooses to volunteer, and seeks sponsorship for her time and effort (existing volunteers could equally approach friends and family for sponsorship). It’s safe to say it hasn’t taken off – the example of Crisis at Christmas sponsor a volunteer is in fact the only one I can find on the web.

Of course many people choose to donate their time by volunteering for charities or other not-for-profit organisations, without raising money for them. This creates a huge amount of value, of a type which money can’t necessarily buy. But why is volunteering seen as an alternative to individual fundraising, rather than a legitimate activity for sponsorship? It seems like an equitable agreement – if you’ll donate your money to this charity I’ll donate my time. The more common contract – if you’ll donate your money to this charity I’ll get fit – seems like a non-sequitur at best.

Too good to be true?

Fundraisers could argue that they don’t have time. This depends on the alternative – if they are training for several hours a week for many weeks for a marathon, this clearly isn’t the case. There will be some fundraisers who want to run a marathon, and decide to get sponsored as a secondary objective. But the majority of fundraisers surely start out wanting to help a charity as much as they can, and see traditional sponsored activities as the best way of achieving this – but only because this is the conventional wisdom. In an efficient market, SV would outcompete traditional activities, because of the added value it brings to the charity. To achieve this, fundraisers would need to choose SV and explain the added value to sponsors – something I think is intuitive once you understand the concept. As an additional perk for the SV, the health and social benefits of volunteering are well documented.

Charities could argue that volunteers take time and money to administrate and train, and short-term volunteers are of little use to them. However, they could stipulate a minimum commitment, and accept volunteers in positions which require lower levels of management, or for events. The charity could also stipulate a minimum pledge from the individual to cover costs, which is common practice in personal fundraising. Larger charities already have sponsored running schemes for fundraisers, and these could easily be translated to SV programs. If charities accept volunteers ordinarily, it would seem logical that SVs should be welcomed with open arms.

Whatever opinions fundraisers and charities may have of SV, the sponsors themselves have the ultimate power as the source of finance in the market. It seems churlish to refuse to sponsor someone on the basis of the activity, although this does happen already in the holiday-funding category. Even if SV was rewarded preferentially, charitable donations possibly wouldn’t increase overall, as sponsors may simply shift donations to SVs. The number of individual fundraisers may similarly stay the same, but because of the added value of increased volunteerism, charities could achieve more of their aims, and so the effect on (Big) society would be significant and positive.

The social value of public spending is in the spotlight at the moment, with concepts like social return on investment (SROI), social impact bonds and the launch of Big Society Capital. Taking a similar approach to individual fundraising would significantly improve the social value of the sponsored activities which are chosen – from a very low current baseline.

The nuance in meaning of the ‘Just Giving’ name mirrors the  major shift in public expectations of sponsored activities which needs to take place – from merely donating to fair and equitable sponsorship.

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