The Voluntary Impulse

Faber & Faber, 1998, Buy on Amazon UK

“This excellent introduction to voluntarism appears at an opportune moment. After a long period of decline voluntary agencies are once again capturing attention. The virtues of voluntarism are being extolled by our political masters to undermine public confidence in collectivism, while voluntary action has also emerged as a major defence mechanism among the advocates of the institutions of the welfare state. Frank Prochaska shows that voluntarism only momentarily declined. His review of events from the eighteenth century to the present draws attention to the common features of voluntary effort throughout this period,and he suggests that this activity serves an important bonding function in local communities, as well as providing for more dramatic pressure-group initiatives on a national scale.

The diversity and complexity of voluntarism create formidable difficulties for the author of a short introductory survey, especially when a broad chronological framework is adopted. The organizations considered by Prochaska range from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (1698) to the recently-founded AIDS charities.

Significantly, the SPCK and many other venerable charities have persisted to the present,usually in amalgamations, or with changes sentences are devoted to this question. His remit is taken as the “antithesis of collective or statutory authority”, but within this framework of non-collectiveaction, it is unclear where boundaries lie. Trade unions and friendly societies are excluded, but local charities of the friendly society type seem to be included. Major acts of individual philanthropy are excluded, but Nuffield and Wellcome are briefly mentioned. Voluntary agencies relating to health and social welfare occupy a dominant place in this account. Medical historians would have appreciated attention to the voluntary hospitals, charitable dispensaries, the hospital savings movement,and perhaps also the formidable voluntary effort devoted to social hygiene and mental health in the twentieth century. However, Prochaska’s inteligent commentary contains many insights helpful to the understanding of charitable medical bodies not specifically mentioned in the text.

This book succeeds well in fulfilling the object of the series to provide short, informed studies in the evolution of current problems. It strikes the right balance between past and present. It is particularly gratifying that historical material is not devalued by use for merely exemplary or illustrative purposes. The author also avoids his text degenerating into a chronological catalogue of voluntary organizations. The first two historical chapters consider the rise of philanthropy in the eighteenth century, and local philanthropy in action, with special consideration of district visiting. These chapters elaborate on the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor and the Ranyard Mission, two particularly good choices, both of which are relevant to medical historians.

There follows a short but helpful chapter on fund-raising. The final chapter, on the adaptation of voluntary effort in the twentieth century,is arguably the least successful. In particular it gives little sense of the relative and shifting balance between public and voluntary agencies in the field of welfare. Such minor deficiences do not detract significantly from the success of this excellent introduction to philanthropy and voluntary action.”

Review at the time of publication by Charles Webster, All Souls College, Oxford