… what do the Parties have to say about volunteering?
Given all the debates about televised debates, it was refreshing to see the Charity Leaders Network acevo hosting a Q&A session with representatives from five of our political parties and an audience comprising third sector managers and employees. A variety of issues were covered but two issues are particularly significant in relation to our focus on the volunteering experience:
1 To what extent should volunteers be doing the work of public services? Everyone was in agreement that volunteers should not be replacing vital public services and employees with specialist expertise and skills (including a rapprochement between UKIP and the Green Party which was heralded as something of a first!). However there is clearly a fine line here and other parties negotiated around it. By encouraging volunteering are we simply letting Government off the hook of providing vital social support? The Conservative Minister for Civil Society although initially stating Third Sector Organizations should not run services, later argued that TSOs may be better at running certain sorts of services as they are closer to the local issues and potentially more efficient at doing so. The Shadow Minister more specifically considered that volunteers bring a special quality of “human warmth and contact” that is invaluable as an addition to those services provided by Government. However she argued that it is difficult for ordinary people to volunteer because of their own problems of finding time, childcare cover and financial support; an issue we are also interested in exploring.
2 How can we encourage young people to engage with volunteering? The current Government here claims some success in introducing the National Citizen Service and ‘Step up to Serve’ programme which independent research has indicated has increased young peoples’ confidence. There is a shared belief that getting young people to volunteer will lead to lifelong commitment to third sector work. The role of schools is emphasised in encouraging engagement in social projects and politics but there were concerns that a narrowing of the curriculum over recent years will squeeze out time for this. The Shadow Minister suggested there could be Third Sector apprenticeships but was keen to draw a distinction between work placements/internships and volunteering.
The UKIP representative summed up his view with a robust laissez faire attitude of ‘if you want volunteers, go get them, it’s not up to Government to get them for you’ rather missing the point about all the constraining contextual and structural factors previously aired. No doubt this is only the start and we can expect to see much more debate and discussion as the Election draws closer!
The Commission on the Voluntary Sector and Ageing today issued its report entitled Decision Time which explores the implications for voluntary work of an ageing population.
Through this report they seek to challenge some assumptions about the over-65s involvement in volunteering, particularly with respect to the ways in which third sector organizations themselves regard their older volunteers and the sort of work it is assumed they will be doing: in other words challenging the stereotype of the “little old lady…licking envelopes and setting out chairs”. The report suggest over-65s provide enormously helpful professional skills which may be going unrecognised. They also highlight that older volunteers are not simply waiting around to be asked to participate but also have a lot of other calls on their time, such as grandchild care, lifelong learning, and part-time work. How is the busy pensioner going to fit in a commitment to voluntary work? Recruiting and engaging the over-65s may take more effort that third sector organizations realise and in future may be a more competitive employment market. Indeed the report argues that “new models of volunteering” are required including lifting age restrictions and expanding flexible voluntary working options.
The report briefly touches on the implications of a “more connected” world, by which they mean the opportunities of global communication but also the possible reduction of face-to-face time. However they do not really expand on the particular challenges for third sector organizations in this connected world nor relate this specifically to the older volunteer. Are there still some stereotypes that linger? Is this topic not so relevant to a discussion of the ageing population? Are we assuming that our current over-65s do not engage with mobile and digital technologies? (A relation of my own has recently bought an iPad at age 75+ despite a lifelong aversion to the technological). Some queries that could have been addressed here might have included: How could third sector organizations use such technologies to support older volunteers specifically? What particular opportunities may these technologies provide to help this large, more technologically engaged, more mobile population of volunteers get involved and manage their various commitments?
The EPSRC-funded Digital Brain Switch project has been examining some of the issues also of interest to us at VolEx, in particular the implications of digital media for how individuals manage work-life transitions.
Digital Brain Switch Project
The project collected video diaries and conducted follow-up interviews with students, office workers and social entrepreneurs, and it is the findings emerging from this latter group that may particularly begin to provide additional ideas about volunteering in a digital world.
Social Entrepreneurs (SEs) ‘employ market-based methods to improve social problems’ (Grimes et al, 2012), setting up businesses whose profits are fed back into socially meaningful projects, often within local communities and directed towards addressing those communities specific needs. Some of these social enterprises rely on volunteers (and sometimes family) to help deliver these projects.
The findings of this project are just beginning to emerge but a clear message that comes across is the dedication that social entrepreneurs, like volunteers, feel for their cause, strongly identifying on a personal level with their work which can then lead to issues in maintaining a work-life balance. Indeed many SEs would not talk in terms of work and life as being separate but rather fully integrated in a way they felt they were not able to achieve in paid employment. We may find parallels here in the ways volunteers feel about their voluntary work.
It is clear that Social Entrepreneurs in particular make extensive use of social media in pursuing their goals, especially as it provides an inexpensive way of advertising the social enterprise and engaging with stakeholder groups. The SEs often have several Twitter and Facebook accounts, moving between these to engage different elements of their supporters and target audiences.
In general then SEs find social media and the internet invaluable but the picture is rather more complex than this, for example:
• SEs felt under some pressure to be regularly on-line servicing their enterprises’ profile so that the enterprise appears clearly active and engaged. This could mean blogging and tweeting at all hours and often when engaged in another activity, and not being able to easily switch off because there is always more to be done.
• This intensive engagement with social media and close identification with their work, means that the issue for SEs is less about drawing a boundary between ‘work’ and ‘life’ but rather between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’. For example, how much of themselves should be exposed on line in order to underline their dedication to the cause and how much kept private in order to avoid exposing others close to them?
• In those larger social enterprises that employed volunteers, there could also be concern over how volunteers engaged with social media – even as private individuals – as some on-line activities (even just ‘liking’ FB comments) could conflict with the message and goals of the social enterprise. At least one of the participants in the project therefore ran training courses for volunteers in using social media.
While the focus of the Digital Brain Switch project is not volunteering, some of the issues here clearly are relevant to volunteering and raise issues about both how volunteers manage on-line identities and public-personal boundaries, and how third sector organizations may engage with volunteers’ social media activity.