The Voluntary Action History Society (VAHS) was founded in 1991 by three people – Colin Rochester, Justin Davis Smith and Rodney Hedley – whose experience straddled academic study and practical experience of the voluntary sector. Their aim was to address what they saw as the neglect of the history of voluntary action by historians and the ignorance of their own history of those who worked in charities and other voluntary organisations.
VAHS rapidly attracted a membership of academics and voluntary sector practitioners and organised a series of seminars, which were based at the LSE for more than a decade. It became a registered charity in 1995. After a short period of inactivity, it re-launched in 2005, when Pat Starkey took over from the founding chair, Colin Rochester, and Georgina Brewis became the new secretary. Between 2005 and 2008 it held its seminars in a variety of London venues including the LSE, the Foundling Hospital Museum, Dr William’s Library and CIVITAS before finding a permanent home at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London. From 2009 onwards it has made available podcasts (and the occasional video) of its seminar presentations – the first of IHR’s seminar series to do so. More recently it has added to traditional seminars occasional events in which key figures in the development of the voluntary sector and the development of the academic study of voluntary action have reflected on their life and times.
In addition to its programme of seminars VAHS has held:
- Five international conferences on voluntary action: at the University of Liverpool in 2001; the University of Roehampton in 2003; the University of Liverpool in 2008; the University of Kent in 2010; and Huddersfield University in 2013. It will hold the next international conference in 2016.
- Occasional day or half-day seminars on specialist topics (voluntary action in the First World War, churches and voluntary action, councils for voluntary service and local voluntary action, leisure and voluntary action)
- A symposium, jointly organised with the Menzies Centre at King’s College, London, on the legacy of William Beveridge’s Voluntary Action, in November 2008
- An event celebrating its twentieth anniversary in April 2011, which also included the launch of Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World (edited by Melanie Oppenheimer and Nicholas Deakin; Manchester University Press), which was based on papers presented at the Beveridge Symposium; and Understanding the Roots of Voluntary Action: Historical Perspectives on Current Social Policy (edited by Colin Rochester, George Campbell Gosling, Alison Penn and Meta Zimmeck; Sussex Academic Press), which was based on papers presented at the third international conference.
VAHS has also engaged in other initiatives which support the development and professional health of the voluntary sector research community and the continued existence and accessibility of the source materials essential to its work. These include:
- A New Researchers Project, generously funded by the Economic History Society, which involved training workshops and networking events tailored to the needs of for postgraduate students and early researchers.
- An ongoing campaign for the preservation and upkeep of the archives of voluntary organisations, which was relaunched, with the support of the Princess Diana Memorial Fund, as the Campaign for Voluntary Sector Archives at the House of Commons in October 2012. VAHS has taken steps to ensure that its own archives are preserved and available to future researchers by depositing them at the LSE alongside the early records of Volunteering England.