Social history and organizational development: revisiting Beveridge’s Voluntary Action

Penn, Alison (2011). Social history and organizational development: revisiting Beveridge’s Voluntary Action. In: Rochester, Colin; Gosling, George Campbell; Penn, Alison and Zimmeck, Meta eds. Understanding Roots of Voluntary Action: Historical Perspectives on Current Social Policy. Sussex Academic Press, pp. 17–29.



William Beveridge’s 1948 report on Voluntary Action is rightly seen as a landmark in the history of the voluntary sector. It was written at a time when the state, both at the central and local level, had moved centre stage as a provider and funder of welfare as part of the post-war welfare settlement of which Beveridge himself is widely seen as an architect. It provides us with an important link between the development of voluntary action before and after the Second World War. The report was originally commissioned by the National Deposit Friendly Society, whose role had been eclipsed in the post-war settlement, but Beveridge widened its scope to include the philanthropic as well as the mutual traditions of voluntary action and made the case for ensuring that it remained “vigorous and abundant” at a time of a greatly increased state presence.

This chapter revisits Beveridge’s report to explore the ways in which it can help us to understand the organizational development of voluntary action. It begins by using his discussion of “motive” to examine the “springs” or origins of voluntary action and how they are linked to the associational nature of voluntary organizations – how they organize themselves to achieve their objectives. It suggests that, while organizations may change and move away from their founding mission, there can be remarkable continuities and newer manifestations of the original motives.

Beveridge’s report also provides insights into some of the organizational challenges facing voluntary action, in particular how they combined local autonomy with central or national co-ordination. Such organizational issues do not take place in a vacuum and Beveridge’s discussion of the impact on the Friendly Societies of the context of the emerging welfare state provides an illustration of the nature of the “moving frontier” between the state and voluntary action – a term which was deployed by Beveridge himself. The chapter then goes on to suggest that the organizational consequences of this moving frontier were very different for bodies from the mutual and the philanthropic traditions: while the mutuals were displaced, philanthropic organizations underwent a process of metamorphosis.

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