Are young people turned away from volunteering because of their stereotypes of the ‘frumpy’ and ‘lonely’ volunteer? A recent paper published in the European Journal of Marketing suggests this could well be the case[i]. It has already been recognised that young people are those least likely to volunteer and Dr Ho and Prof O’Donohoe (from Edinburgh University) explored this issue through individual and group interviews with 39 volunteers and non-volunteers between the ages of 16 and 24. Stereotypes included:
- The Older Charity Shop Worker, by far the most popular, a middle class, middle aged spinster or widow who is caring and compassionate but with a frumpy appearance and few social contacts.
- The Sweet Singleton, younger, enthusiastic and committed but somewhat obsessive and like “one of these freakishly happy people who smiles all the time”. Again such volunteers are thought to have few friends, using volunteering to meet people.
- The Environmental Protestor, the most negative of the volunteers, younger, hippie-ish and “possibly living in a tree”. Such volunteers were positioned as social outcasts who had allowed one particular obsession to dominate their whole lives.
Interestingly, the participants were also asked about the stereotype of the ‘Non-Volunteer’, depicted by non-volunteers as younger and sociable but, notably, by volunteers as inconsiderate and unkind.
The overall picture the researchers take away from this is that young people are concerned that being identified as a volunteer may give connotations of having no self-driven social networks, being seriously ‘uncool’. These stereotypes and peer pressure tend to steer them away from volunteering but also help them resist potential accusations of being a “bad person” because they don’t volunteer. The existence of such stereotypes engenders active identity management strategies amongst volunteers, who tend to accommodate their volunteering identities to their social context at the time. Encouraging young people to volunteer might be as much about “normalising” volunteering as an activity as extolling the benefits of volunteering.
This very interesting research begins to tackle the issues of both perceived identities of volunteers and the identity work involved in being a volunteer to avoid being stigmatised. This latter issue is of particular interest to our VolEx project: how do volunteers manage their volunteering identities on an ongoing basis? How does the experience of volunteering challenge some preconceptions and stereotypes? Would ‘digital’ volunteering have the same issues of stigma, even amongst young people?
[i] Ho and O’Donohoe (2014) Volunteer stereotypes, stigma, and relational identity projects. European Journal of Marketing, 48, 854-877.
I have just come across this interesting blog post by Rob Jackson that suggests the diversity of volunteers is being underestimated in part because of the narrow understanding of volunteering that is being applied.
What is interesting to us is the idea of ‘under the radar’ volunteering which is not counted. As more and more third sector organizations look at ways to increase support and involvement, often employing digital means, so it appears that volunteering activity is going to become ever more difficult to classify and measure. This also has some resonance with emerging ideas about ‘digital labour’ which has to date perhaps focused on the ‘free’ resource that commercial companies obtain via Web 2.0. Within voluntary organisations there is then also the potential that various forms of engagement are not recognised as ‘volunteering’ as such and also fall ‘under the radar’.
A survey by YMCA and reported here in Forbes has reveals a sharp drop in intentions to volunteer in the US: “the percentage of people who planned to volunteer time or expertise to a worthy cause or organization dropped from 57 percent to 41 percent” It seems that one reason behind this drop may be a shift in the perception of who is responsible for making a difference in local communities. The report suggests that individuals are shifting this responsibility to local and governmental organisations rather than seeing a clear role for themselves and their families.
Would these figures change if the range of volunteering opportunities increased? What is the perception of digital volunteering and is it seen as less intrusive or onerous? We hope to explore these issues more over the coming weeks.
This recent article in the New Statesman suggests that “Reliance on unpaid volunteers is turning public museums into a middle class commodity” in their recent article, highlighting in particular the difference between ‘leisure’ and ‘career-orientated’ volunteering, with the latter characterised by those who hope to gain paid employment as a result of their volunteering.
The article offers a particular take on volunteering from the authors perspective who highlights that “a high level of professional competence was expected from volunteers, despite a constant emphasis [by other staff] on the unprofessional status of the work”. The experience of this particular volunteer seems to have been less than rewarding, and serves to highlight issues between different ‘types’ of volunteers, between volunteers and paid staff and even between volunteers and the public.
The 2014 Talk Talk Digital Heroes awards include a category for Volunteer Digital Hero – for someone using a technology solution to encourage others to volunteer. The two short-listed candidates include the organizer of a volunteer community who run face-to-face events helping people to use the Raspberry Pi computer, and a pioneer of microvolunteering who developed the Help From Home initiative.
It’s good to see two quite different forms of digital volunteering represented here, one using online communities to organize a face-to-face volunteer effort, and one focused on virtual volunteering from people who may never meet one another, or the organization their efforts are benefiting. Intuitively the experience that these two kinds of digital volunteer have of their volunteering would seem quite different, and they may also be distinct populations demographically. Are “microvolunteers” concentrated only in the younger, smartphone-enabled population, or is this attractive to a wider population? Who is likely to want their face-to-face volunteering experience to be organized through social media? Relatively little is known, as yet, about the motivations and experiences of digital volunteers of various kinds, but the signs are that this form of volunteer practice is set to increase in volume and significance for the third sector organizations who will need to manage, and motivate their efforts.