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Understanding the Roots of Voluntary Action

Historical Perspectives on Current Social Policy

The editors of this volume are members of the committee of the Voluntary Action History Society which was formed in 1991 to promote the historical understanding of voluntary organisations and charitable activity among both practitioners and academics. A registered charity since 1995, VAHS organises monthly seminars at the Institute of Historical Research in London as well as international conferences on a biennial basis.

The current debate on the growing role of the voluntary and community or –third– sector in delivering public and social policy is impoverished by its lack of understanding of the historical events which have shaped the sector and its relationship with the state. This widely anticipated book draws on a range of empirical studies of aspects of the history of voluntary action to illuminate and inform this debate. Chapter contributions range across two centuries and a variety of fields of activity, geographical areas and organisational forms. Four key themes are addressed:

The ‘moving frontier’ between the state and voluntary action; the distribution of roles and functions between them; and the nature of their inter-relationship.

The ‘springs’ of voluntary action – what makes people get involved in voluntary organisations or support them financially.

Organisational challenges for voluntary agencies, including growth, cleaving to their missions and values, and survival.

Issues of continuity and change: how and to what extent has the nature of voluntary action and its role in society remained essentially the same despite the changing context?

This book is essential reading for all practitioners involved in charities and voluntary and non-profit organisations, for those who work at the interface between government and the third sector and for those who are involved in making and implementing public and social policy.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-424-6
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $45.00
Release Date: March 2011
Page Extent / Format: 190 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


The Contributors
List of Abbreviations

1 Introduction: Today’s Debate and the Experience of the Past
Colin Rochester

Part I The Moving Frontier between the State and Voluntary Action
2 Social History and Organizational Development: Revisiting Beveridge’s Voluntary Action
Alison Penn
3 Child Guidance in Britain 1926–1955: From Voluntarism to the Welfare State?
John Stewart
4 Responses to Children in Need in Scotland: Historical Challenges for Social Services Planning, Policy and Provision
Alexandra Wright

Part II The Impulse from Above and the Impulse from Below
5 By The People themselves? Social Class and a Volunteer-Led Museum, 1884–1915
Bridget Yates
6 Varieties of Voluntarism in the South Wales Coalfield, circa 1880–1948
Steven Thompson
7 Quintin Hogg and the Original Polytechnic
Brenda Weeden
8 Child Rescue as Mission in Britain, 1850–1915
Shurlee Swain
9 Gender and Voluntarism in the Criminal Justice System: The Campaigning Activities of Women Magistrates in England, 1920–1960
Anne Logan

Part III Organizational Challenges
10 Success and Failure in Scottish Convalescent Homes, 1860–1939
Jenny Cronin
11 Change or Decay: the House of Charity for Distressed Persons in London, 1919–2000
Pat Starkey

Part IV Change and Continuity
12 Scientific Philanthropy and the Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor, 1796–1824
Jonathan Fowler
13 Is There a “New Philanthropy”?
Beth Breeze


Ever since the Heath Government established the Voluntary Services Unit in the early 1970s, official recognition of the social contribution of voluntarism has been developing. The contribution itself, of course, goes back much further, and long predates the welfare state. But the prominence of the voluntary sector within politician’s plans to reshape Britain – the Big Society being but the latest example – has now reached such a point where an appreciation of the sector’s long history is crucial to a rounded understanding of contemporary policy. Understanding the Roots of Voluntary Action is an attempt to meet this need.
... The volume had its origins in the Voluntary Action History Society’s 2008 Liverpool conference, and is structured around four themes, all of which will be familiar to students of the sector: the ‘moving frontier’ between the state and voluntary sectors; the motivations for voluntary endeavour; organisational growing pains; and the classic historical focus on continuity and change. Within this framework, there are some superb chapters. Steven Thompson, for example, uses the multi-faceted history of voluntarism in the South Wales coalfield to demonstrate that ‘different and even contested conceptions of the role and significance of voluntarism were articulated by different sections of coalfield society’ (82). Particularly, the ideological battle within voluntarism, between worker mutualism and employee philanthropy, created a dynamic that pushed sections of the left towards enthusiasm for state provision (91).
James McKay, Department of History, University of Birmingham

Reviewed in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly (copyrighted material),

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