On Recognising the Importance of Volunteering



As a frequent volunteer myself, I occasionally ponder over the economic impact of volunteering. When we think of the work economy, many might distinguish it into the dichotomy of the public and private sector. It is less common that the third sector, comprising of non-profits like NGOs, trade unions and charities, is factored into the equation. However, as of late, economists like Andy Haldane from the Bank of England have been calling for a more formal quantification of this sector to further recognise the vital contributions of the civil society and develop it. With increasing attention on the civil society nowadays, will we perhaps see increased consideration of the third sector in economics? What issues might factor into its potential for quantification?


Volunteering varies greatly in activity and scale across societies. As far as numbers are concerned, an estimate by the International Labour Organisation in 2017 placed the number of volunteers worldwide at 970 million, contributing the equivalence of work undertaken by roughly 125 million full-time workers. If accurate, that would be quite a sizeable part of the economy left unaccounted for. Further quantification of this work will go a long way in helping civil society organisations measure and assess their impact, facilitating their outreach to new volunteers and funders.


However, even if we were to formally acknowledge the third sector’s importance, various practical issues arise as we try to quantify the third sector. As there is generally no price tag associated with voluntary transactions, it becomes harder to measure the value of volunteering, requiring proxy estimates. Common metrics include tedious translation of one’s volunteer footprint and opportunity costs into monetary value. Simply put, a push for further quantification might not have been worth the associated administrative costs before current technological advancements.


Our cultural definition of work also plays a part in whether we decide to further quantify the economic output of the third sector. When asked about work aspirations, many would often name a job with a salary, associating work with some form of constant monetary returns. Yet, the dictionary definition of the word “work” rarely mentions money, allowing volunteering to fall under its umbrella. Indeed, as it stands today, it is not possible for everyone to dedicate time to volunteering without a pay cheque, limiting civic participation in voluntary work. On how to make volunteering appear more viable and attractive, Haldane suggested the scaling up of discounts for volunteers in a manner similar to the Young Scot card, without broaching the controversial topic of universal basic income.


More quantification and formal recognition of volunteering work today will benefit us all in the long run. While the ongoing pandemic has shown the worst in our society, it has also revealed our best – the ability of the civil society to organise itself to act and provide for its members, especially the vulnerable. These unprecedented times has also catalysed a paradigm shift in our notion of work, where working from home has been brought to the centre stage of debates on the sustainable future of work. Our conception of work will likely be further disrupted and transformed in the future, as technology advances exponentially beyond the layperson’s comprehension in our “fourth Industrial Revolution”. The role of the civil society and its activities should not be left out as we continue to reconsider the concept of work.


The economy circulates with money, but its heart is pumped by humans and their labour. Whilst private and governmental organisations are undoubtedly important to our society, we should not underestimate the ability of the civil society to organise itself and its resulting socioeconomic impact. Moving towards a sustainable economy, the role of humanity and thereby civil society will undoubtedly demand greater focus, perhaps starting from a push for the formal quantification of the work by civil society organisations.