Professor John Mohan

Director of the Third Sector Research Centre
Professor of Social Policy
University of Birmingham
Seelye Visiting Fellow

Advocates of the third sector and voluntary action make extensive claims about the distinctive virtues of voluntary organisations and voluntary action when it comes to meeting social needs. These claims extend beyond their direct benefits, to contentions about the wider public and social impacts of the third sector, such as promoting social capital or well-being. These claims need critical scrutiny.

In this lecture I use the phrase “bigging up society” to refer to the process of policy-based evidence formation, rather than evidence based policy formation, which characterises debate in this field. The focus is on what we can say about the capacities of third sector organisations, and about the distribution of voluntary resources. Lessons are drawn from research, over the period since 2010, on a range of initiatives to support and grow the third sector. The emphasis is on the short-lived “Big Society” programme of the coalition government led by David Cameron. This was underpinned by a selective interpretation of the evidence base on voluntarism and a degree of exaggeration of its benefits. Furthermore, while the government was certainly – rhetorically at least – in favour of voluntary action, in practice supportive government initiatives were heavily constrained by austerity and recession; the ability of voluntary organisations to establish a leading role in public service delivery was limited by market-led reforms; and the voluntary sector itself came under sustained political criticism from politicians and the media. There are lessons here of wider relevance for governments wishing to support voluntary action.

See also: One thing we can’t afford to lose

John Mohan is Director of the Third Sector Research Centre, and Professor of Social Policy in the University of Birmingham. John’s work on voluntary action over the past 25 years includes studies of: student volunteering and national service in the USA; hospital contributory schemes in 20th-century Britain (Mutualism and health care, Manchester University Press, 2006); regional and local variations in voluntary action and social capital in the UK; community support for voluntary hospitals; and numerous quantitative studies of voluntary action and voluntary organisations. Most recently, with Rose Lindsey, he is the author of the critically-acclaimed Continuity and change in voluntary action, a mixed-methods study of volunteering behaviours and attitudes in Britain since the late 1970s.

John has contributed regularly to policy debate (e.g. through evidence to Parliamentary inquiries or contributions to the BBC (Radio 4) and through the trade press (Third Sector, Guardian Society)), advised national voluntary organisations, political parties and government departments, and is active in international academic networks in this field (e.g. Board Member, European Research Network on Philanthropy; Co-chair, Conference Committee, International Society for Third Sector Research).

Relevant publications include:


Lindsey, R and Mohan, J (2018) Continuity and change in voluntary action: patterns, trends and understandings (Policy Press)

Mohan, J and Breeze, B (2016) The logic of charity: great expectations in hard times (Palgrave)

Gorsky, M, Mohan J with Willis, T. (2006) Mutualism and health care (Manchester University Press).

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