Everyone is discussing the implications of BREXIT for the UK and this includes Third Sector and community organizations. Many concerns have been expressed about the possible drop in financial support – from the EU, from the UK Government and including donations from the public. Rob Wilson, the UK Minister for Civil Society, writing in the Huffington Post quotes the NCVO as estimating that, in 2013/14, charities received around £308 million direct funding from the EU so this potentially leaves a huge funding gap unless alternatives are provided. At the same time, the need for TSO’s support may increase as financial uncertainty impacts individuals’ economic circumstances. Indeed the sector may be viewed as occupying a particular position of trust – as opposed to the concern now expressed over political interests – while a key role for the sector is envisaged as bringing together groups and communities who may now be in conflict. Our concern as academics is that valued skills brought in by our EU research colleagues may be lost, at the same time as funding sources, already in short supply, are decreased still further.
This may be a time when digital connections and on-line activities become even more important for charities and community organizations (and researchers). When finances are even more constrained and links overseas are threatened, good digital communications with partner organizations and volunteers may have to take the place of face-to-face meetings; and digital volunteers may have to stretch to cover a wider community. At the same time there will be a need to better understand how these digital connections can best be supported and what implications an increased dependence on volunteers has for their own workloads and work-life balance.
First Report From VolEx Research Group Out Now
Over the last few months, and with funding from the Open University, we have been interviewing representatives from a range of Third Sector Organizations (TSOs), as well as organizations that provide support to TSOs. Our grateful thanks go to all those who participated in those interviews.
We asked our stakeholders what uses they currently made of digital media to support their volunteers’ experience, what challenges were raised and what they thought the future held for further exploitation of such technologies in the Third Sector. Our VOLEX Preliminary Research Report summarises those views, for example:
- How can TSOs digitally ‘track’ volunteers without alienating them?
- How can volunteers use digital media to manage their participation effectively?
- While digital media can enable volunteer autonomy, how can TSO strategy still be respected?
The identification of these tensions and challenges demonstrate the need for more understanding and intervention in helping TSOs and volunteers to reap the benefits of digital media in their voluntary and community work. Having identified the issues, pursuing this understanding is our future research strategy. If you are interested in knowing more about our continuing project or taking part in any future research, please contact Dr Katrina Pritchard@open.ac.uk.
During volunteers’ week, we note two organizations drawing attention to the very important role played by digital volunteers in the volunteering community. Intriguingly, they mean somewhat different things by the term ‘digital volunteer’ which demonstrates the range of possibilities subsumed under the role.
When we hear the term, we may think of micro-volunteering and have an idea of rather fleeting voluntary engagement that is often mediated by on-line contact and fits around the busy lives of a range of citizens. However from DigiCommunitiesWales and from The Mix/YouthNet, we hear of rather different kinds of roles that are still flexible, but require more commitment. Roles which seek to both support digital work and engage through digital means; both activities of huge value to the Third Sector.
DigiCommunitiesWales has taken the opportunity of Volunteers Week to draw attention to the work done by their digital volunteers who are tackling the problem of digital exclusion head-on. DCM has been training volunteers to meet with individuals who do not have much online experience and teach them how to access the internet and use it to help them achieve personal objectives and goals.
The Mix has been training some of its volunteers in vital on-line support work with their constituency of young adults. The Mix’s digital volunteers engage with their community through on-line discussion boards and chat rooms, answering queries and offering advice to a range of young adults spread across the UK. Digital reach in this way is enabling the delivery of the service.
In the first case, the digital volunteers often meet people off-line with the goal of bringing them on-line while in the second case, volunteers are going on-line in order to meet with a group who are already there (and sometimes they then meet up off-line!).
In our research at VolEx, we want to bring together this rich variety of concepts of ‘digital volunteering’ and understand the benefits and challenges those volunteers experience. We also recognise the fluidity of this movement from on-line to off-line and are keen to understand how volunteers experience and manage this transition. We want to encourage the sharing of these practices across the Third Sector so that different organizations can learn from each other what they mean by ‘digital volunteering’.
… and even the most causal glance through Twitter indicates how crucial social media has become to spreading the word and helping to create a national sense of community across very diverse kinds of volunteering. #VolunteersWeek is working over-time enabling disparate activities to blend together and illustrate how widespread and necessary volunteering is, as well as allowing volunteers to come together to share experiences. Third sector organizations and community enterprises are using the space not just to highlight their volunteers’ activities but to thank them too. Pinterest has been pressed into action to add a visual element and encourage volunteers to put a face and a place to their volunteer activities. YouTube gives an additional voice to those activities and individual volunteers add their bit. Blogs (like this one from NCVO) and on-line articles (like this one from The Guardian) enable commentary and are able to link ideas and concepts across the sector. Indeed, acknowledging the need to harness social media for this NCVO have put out a digital resource pack to help third sector organizations join in.
Social media is clearly essential to the Third Sector and community enterprises for all sorts of marketing and recruitment reasons and Volunteers Week is also part of that. But what is also interesting about volunteer week on-line is that is serves to bring together volunteers to create an overarching sense of identity and a wider volunteering network that goes beyond specific events, local communities or individual charities.
Let us know of any innovative uses of social media you have seen during Volunteers’ Week!