This article considers how the image of a caring state is both performed and contested by the actual workings of Zimbabwe's volunteer community case workers (CCWs). According to their policy mandate, the volunteers’ commitment to registering ‘the vulnerable’ and mobilising them for different welfare project purposes is based on an assumed affective closeness to their communities. Ethnographic investigation also identifies community-level care work as an affectively and economically charged field, where the CCWs navigate conflicting expectations and utilise their connectedness to other welfare providers to sustain life. As diversely situated, community-level, caring bureaucrats, they also assist their ‘cases’ to construct claims of vulnerability that fit the narrow categories of welfare organisations, recognising and addressing forms of vulnerability that go beyond such definitions from the outside. In such processes, the credibility of both welfare institutions and CCWs is challenged and reproduced.