Smart Thinking

Transforming Social Action into the Social Norm

Transforming Social Action into the Social Norm. Engendering a new spirit of giving for the 21st Century.

IN THE LATEST of a series of publications, Cabinet Office release the “Giving” Green Paper outlining plans to “transform Social Action into the Social Norm.” Can technology and behavioural science be leveraged to increase the UK’s “time giving” generosity? A Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the Financial Times recently discovered that Britons are more likely to support charitable causes with financial donations than with scarce and more valued time. What initiatives are government considering to redress this, and ensure scalability of the ‘voluntary workforce’?

Social Action

Government can encourage, but not compel, there is a new role for government, a less centralised state providing ‘essential oil’ for the machine, but without constraining the design or operational characteristics of the machine itself.

Social Policy

Social Policy

In loosening our grip on our “time wallets”, what essential characteristics of opportunities are required to expand engagement?


The Green Paper identifies 5 key elements to “build and sustain momentum behind social action by changing social norms”:

G – Great Opportunities

Will provide attractive, rewarding, flexible, motivational, developmental opportunities for social action and local engagement. These will be tailored to fit busy (and dynamic) lifestyles. A key challenge for member organisations is to provide fun, meaningful opportunities which have a side dish of self improvement. Where altruism meets developmental and social need, the pain of ‘timing giving’ lessens significantly. Although clearly a special case, in terms of London 2012, the Games Maker volunteer programme has attracted 240,000 applications for circa 70,000 volunteer roles. Hopefully this will not be the exception that proves the rule.

Technologically the Green Paper outlines proposals for enabling charitable donations through micropayments, at ATMs and as part of routine transactions (such as tax submission or driving licence renewal). Affordable giving and micropayments are well established methods, micro-volunteering is somewhat more arcane. I struggle to see how complex tasks requiring continuity can be delivered with any degree of coherence in this model. Micro-volunteering can only really work when tasks are simple and routine. It may provide the simplest stepping stone off the island of (pure) transactional giving.

Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference

Areas for further discussion in the provision of opportunities relate to participation barriers, encompassing skills or personal constraints or simply limited opportunity supply across regions.

Looking 10 years hence I wonder if we will see (positive or even negative) competitive aspects entering pro-social activity. Could we see a new form (of the curiously British) “keeping up with the Jones’”, but linked to pro-social engagement and social action?

I – Information

Scalability requires intelligent dissemination of information relating to opportunities. Matching the right resources to the right opportunities efficiently is paramount. Social networks will be a key channel for information distribution and opportunity match-making. But social networks and the web are cacophonous attention hogs. How we tame social networks and ensure egalitarianism in the distribution of information (in this context) is an open question.

V – Visibility

The normalisation factor will be driven by visibility. I would cite Christakis’ Connected to reinforce the sociological potential. The activities of pro-social role models, when distributed widely enough have the potential to counter cynicism, social stagnation, disaffection and assist in the re-orientation of social action as a social norm. There may need to be a cultural shift away form the Biblical principle that “giving is best done in private”. Whilst laudable, this may well negate the influence and amplification effect in the social network that we might otherwise expect.

My favourite excerpt from the paper:

We want social action to become a truly mass-phenomenon – and to encourage people who currently give only sporadically, or not at all, to join the band of committed individuals who regularly give their time and money to social causes.

E- Exchange

This introduces reciprocity into the giving equation. I defend ‘transactional giving’ (a predominantly one way act) as this provides stable income streams. Reciprocity introduces the concept of mutual benefit. As I mention, altruism should not feel like penance. It is not atonement, it should enthuse and continually inspire, rewarding the contributor and receiver. Reciprocity creates the feedback loop that nurtures sustainability. In the ‘economics of giving’ this is where self-interest resides. I am particularly interested in “time banking”, a concept being trialled in Wales (SPICE community time credits).

Volunteering and Society in the 21st Century

In terms of reciprocity, I think a trick is being missed by not emulating the US model of Presidential Service Awards. Trusted 3rd sector and other social enterprises could easily act as certifying organisations. In the US system, volunteers accumulate‘certified credits’, and at reaching certain levels, are eligible for recognition through Presidential Awards. This introduces simplicity and transparency, although (of course) there should be no intent to usurp the national honours system.

S – Support

From micro-philanthropy through to central government support structures, legislation (Localism Bill), innovative instruments (Big Society Bank, community time credits) will further engender a spirit of innovation.

Government’s role will need to be finely balanced, light touch in my view is preferable, rewarding delivery excellence in the third and private sectors whilst stripping out autocratic target chasing.

Central government support to deliver outcomes is good, ‘tick-box target chasing’ is not. Match funding, incentivising giving, formation of the Big Society Bank and active support for social enterprises show potential. The role of corporations in providing private sector support requires aggressive overhaul.

If there is an area in which government ‘should compel’ then it is here.

Social Action – Time to Get Real?

Scary statistic follows:

“The average UK citizen spends nearly 17 hours a week watching TV, but only one hour on voluntary work”

Is it not therefore time to switch off the “goggle box”, switch off the Google box, and make a personal pledge to support the social action transformation?

The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer

Social Policy Development

Key strands to follow in 2011:

  • The Department of Health is refreshing its Strategic Vision for Volunteering in Health and Social Care, for publication in March 2011.
  • Volunteer Infrastructure Programme to begin in March 2011.
  • The White Paper on Giving is planned for publication in spring 2011.
  • There will be a National Citizen Service pilot with 10,000 young people in summer 2011.
  • NESTA will commission work to identify which time banking models are most effective. This research will inform the development of a major programme of practical experimentation throughout 2011.

Further Reading on Social Policy

By Steve Nimmons

Steve is a Certified European Engineer, Chartered Engineer, Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Royal Society of Arts, Linnean Society and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is an Electric Circle Patron of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a Liveryman and Freeman of London and serves on numerous industry panels. He is a member of Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute and the Chartered Institute of Journalists.