The 2016 Lloyds Banking Digital Index Report, published a few days ago, for the first time draws on interviews with members of Voluntary and Community Sector Organizations to compliment their on-line behaviour and questionnaire survey data, which helps add some detail to the statistical observations. The main finding is that VCSOs are increasing their use of digital media in general. Of particular interest to us is the finding that “44% have created social media communities to engage with their customers/donors, up from 31% in 2015”. Overall the report suggests that this is in pursuit of on-line donations, however, there is clearly scope to extend these communities in a variety of ways, as Jennifer Elliot from ME NorthEast said:
We [used to] produce a newsletter which was printed and posted out to more than 1,800 addresses. Now we are focusing on social media, building on our Facebook popularity. The best thing is that unlike the printed newsletter, Facebook is not just one way. We can respond to enquiries and actually talk to people about our posts, at a time and pace to suit individual need, and our audience really needs that.
However there is also the concern that further developments are held back by an inability to invest in digital skills training, especially for smaller charities, this from Sarah Smart of the Reedham Children’s Trust:
We would love to do more online, it’s crucial to the development of our charity and for reaching a wider audience. We have a website but we need more time and resources to develop it into what we really need.
As the report says “charities are often reliant on individual volunteers coming forward to help, rather than embedding skills within the organisation itself” and this can lead to problems of imperfect information or knowledge being lost as volunteers leave. Larger charities, however, are able to recruit in these skills and this echoes some of the results of our own (qualitative) research which suggests a growing ‘digital divide’ between larger and smaller charities in the extent to which they can take advantage of the benefits of an on-line presence. Interestingly younger VCSOs tend to have the highest levels of ‘digital maturity’ perhaps indicating that VCSOs founded in the digital era, already start with this as a baseline competence. Can larger and newer VCSOs help smaller local VCSOs to develop their digital presence? How can we stop the digital divide from widening?
As we have reported below, VolExResearch participated in the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference 2016 in Nottingham in September. Many, many great talks; and one that stood out for us was a joint presentation between Jenna Ward of De Montfort University and Helen Timbrell of the National Trust reporting back on research into volunteer management at the Trust.
Good news! Their full report was published recently and we spent a Thoughtful Thursday dipping in and out of a twitter discussion centred on Helen’s recent blog and the report itself.
This makes a fascinating read as the researchers explore in detail and thoughtfully analyse the conversations, discussions and pictures taken as the research team explored what volunteering meant to the volunteers, how the paid staff related to the volunteers and how the volunteers were managed. Of course much of this must be specific to the National Trust and their particular focus on specific properties, and that’s how it should be, if we are to gain real insights. However, there was no doubt that the insights had resonance across many VCOs as the Twitter discussion revealed.
What comes across particularly strongly is the ‘affective commitment’ of the volunteers which is of enormous help to the Trust’s work but, coupled with the lack of an employment relationship, could also lead to direct and vocal criticism of managers, and which requires careful emotion management on the part of managers. Indeed managers spoke of their concerns not to alienate valued volunteers and to be careful about ensuring their activities were interesting and worthwhile, while at the same time avoiding tasks that entailed too much personal responsibility or that replicated those of the paid staff. A conundrum indeed!
We find many elements of the report really useful in informing our own focus on how digital interaction and use may be shaping volunteers’ experiences’, including this particular issue about managing passion and personal involvement. For example:
- In some cases using technology while volunteering was directly referenced by volunteers as an unwelcome requirement. Generational issues? No, in fact, more about how using technology was reminiscent of work; transporting them back to aspects of the workplace they want to avoid. Managers are keen to make the volunteering experience ‘a social activity’; if required, how can technology be incorporated in a way that is not ‘like work’?
- Their general high commitment to the Trust also raises potential issues, for example the possibility of feeling distanced from their key reason for volunteering through digital means. At the National Trust the key focus is of course specific properties, but other VCOs may have similar key spaces or this may include physical contact with key VCO recipients. We wonder how the growing number of remote volunteers can experience their own commitment through digital means? Given the complex nature of volunteer management, managers could strategically use technology to provide distance (as many corporate organizations do). The report clearly indicates how counter-productive this would be.
- Metaphorically speaking, technology is often viewed as cold, efficient and the very opposite of the emotional attachment expressed by volunteers. However this may be largely an assumption, as contemporary technology can be very intimate and reduce distance. What is the core metaphor or image that volunteers have of technology – can it, should it be challenged? How can technology be used in a way that fosters or, at the very least, does not alienate that emotional connection?
We were struck not just by the content of the work but the ways the research was conducted and reported. The research comes across as an authentic academic-practitioner collaboration where research clearly can directly affect practices on the ground. And there is no doubt this is encouraged by a thoughtful use of a spread of research techniques including photos and drawing, which also extended to representing the findings and recommendations in pictorial form