A recent article in New Media and Society sheds some interesting new light on the dynamics of digital engagement in voluntary organizations. Fotopoulou’s study focuses on the communicative practices of London-based women’s organizations, using an ethnographic approach to unpack the complex array of hopes and challenges encountered by feminist groups as they incorporate web 1.0 and 2.0 technologies into their work. Fotopoulou argues that networked technologies have become part of the “social imaginary” of these women’s organizations, seen as the default solution for engaging in an increasingly online public sphere. Digital technologies offer up the possibility of intervening in public debate and envisioning new and accessible kinds of feminist virtual organization. The ability to achieve this is, however, often in question as media literacy and the resources to implement ideas often prove scarce. Shifts towards social media risk leaving behind those for whom these technologies are unfamiliar, creating concerns about a new form of age divide with the feminist community. Fotopoulou’s study chimes with some of the dynamics that pervade the voluntary sector more broadly in its attempts to capitalise on the rhetoric of promise that surrounds digital technologies. We echo her plea to focus on the values and practices and the situated conditions in which these developments take place “if we are to avoid recreating grand narratives of unified digital presence – and the exclusionary implications of such narratives”.
We are looking forward to presenting our paper “Reconfiguring volunteering in the digital age” at the 2016 Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference in Nottingham, 8-9 September. Our paper is featured in the theme “Volunteering and participation: present and future”.
Community and voluntary organisations in the Third Sector are becoming increasingly proficient in the use of digital media for brand awareness, campaigning and advocacy, fundraising, and for recruiting volunteers. However, digital media are often less well integrated into supporting post-recruitment volunteer activities and engagement. From qualitative interviews with key stakeholders in the Third Sector, our paper summarises how digital media are being used currently with volunteers, and what interviewees believe are the benefits and challenges of their use in the future. Our analysis identifies three dilemmas which we believe are important to address in formulating digital media strategies for volunteer management, and an important research gap for future academic study.
Following on from our previous post, the current issue of Voluntary Sector Review contains more interesting food for thought on generational issues in volunteering. Nichols and Ralston use in-depth interviews with volunteers at the London 2012 Olympics to explore intergenerational differences in motivations and values. Whilst superficially there appeared to be a predictable split between altruistic motives for older volunteers and more self-interested motives for younger volunteers, closer inspection revealed a more complex interaction between values and circumstances that broke down this clear dichotomy between the generations. In the same issue of Voluntary Sector Review, Hogg uses life history interviews to explore the different trajectories of volunteering across the life course experienced among older volunteers. Some, the constant volunteers, have experienced relatively stable domestic and working lives including a sustained volunteering across a long period, often with the same organization. Serial volunteers show a more sporadic pattern of volunteering, alongside a more chaotic or disrupted biography that may include career breaks, caring responsibilities or divorce. Trigger volunteers may have had either stable or more chaotic biographies, but are characterised as a group by experiencing a life event that acts as a trigger to begin volunteering in later life.
While we are cautious about propagating generational stereotypes and concerned not to conflate age and generation (see Age at Work blog), there are certainly some issues to reflect on here in the context of the role of digital technologies in volunteering. These in-depth pieces of qualitative research are salutary in reminding us that generational differences are not necessarily clear cut, and that within generations there may be some quite fundamental differences in experiences and aspirations that shape and reflect very different trajectories of volunteering. Recognising these differences within generations provides some interesting perspectives on digitally enabled volunteering opportunities and raises questions about areas where digital technologies could make a significant difference. Might digital volunteering enable serial volunteers to keep in touch at times when life circumstances prevent other forms of engagement? Could digital volunteering provide for greater cross-generational interaction between volunteers and/or contribute further to breaking down generational stereotypes?
A recent thesis explores the potential need for Developing Generation-Based Volunteer Management Practices through interviews with 20 volunteers across five generations. While some organizations are quite focused in their target demographic for volunteer recruitment, the contribution to be made by volunteers across a range of ages and stages is widely recognised. Howard’s thesis argues that “many nonprofits seek a volunteer base that includes the experience and maturity of the Silent and Baby Boomer Generations as well as the creativity and advanced technological knowledge of Generations X, Y, and Z.” However, whilst the contribution that this diverse volunteer-base makes may be valued, it is not always understood that different approaches to recruitment, retention and recognition of efforts may be needed across the life-course. Howard argues that volunteer management approaches need to recognise differences between generations in their orientation to volunteering, in terms of their values and their defining moments, and also to acknowledge variations in the extent to which the different generations want to know about the wider activities and values of the organization and the extent to which they feel the organization should know about them.
Reflecting on such generational differences in terms of the understanding of the activity of volunteering and its connection with fundamental issues of identities and values is a useful corrective to a technologically determinist belief that new digitally enhanced models of volunteering must ultimately prevail. It becomes clear that uptake of digital approaches to volunteering may be influenced by far more than a lack of skills, or computer-confidence among older generations. Rather, we need to think carefully about the volunteer experience in-the-round and understand the extent to which digital versions of volunteering embed generationally-specific assumptions about what it is to be a volunteer.