The UK’s Office of National Statistics has recently released figures that show a worrying trend in the amount of time that volunteers give to their communities. Measuring formal volunteering, that is work contributed via groups, clubs or organizations, the figures show a decline of 7% in the amount of time given between 2012 and 2015 as part of an ongoing decline in overall volunteering time since 2005. This pattern is not, however, evenly spread across age groups. In the younger age group, of 16 to 24 year olds, time spent volunteering has gone up, while the time given by 25 to 34 year olds has gone down. The figures hide a complex back story combining a challenging labour market, constrained public spending, transformations of higher education, changing family structures and a proliferation of initiatives aimed at promoting volunteering and providing new digital infrastructures. Clearly these factors hit different demographic groups in different ways and what drives some towards volunteering may drive others away, at the same time as volunteer work is as sorely needed as ever. Delving into individual stories and tracking cohorts over time may give some clearer insights into what is going on.
Voluntary Action South West Surrey focused their annual conference on 4th April 2017 on the theme of inspiration and the event certainly delivered with a stimulating series of sessions exploring both why volunteer efforts are so highly valued and rewarding and how to face up to the challenges of finding, supporting and recognising volunteers. A packed hall of delegates listened to Jessica Taplin, CEO of vInspired talk about the challenges of raising a new generation of young volunteers. Jessica explored the distinctive needs of this grouping of volunteers and stressed their huge potential to contribute, provided that opportunities are tailored to their motivations and their availability. These points were revisited later on in the day by Maddie Thomas, Volunteer Coordinator at the University of Surrey with an overview of the huge potential in the voluntary workforce offered by students in Guildford, tempered by realism about what the right kinds of role might be. Giles Mahoney and Dominic Wright, representatives from the local hospital and clinical commissioning group, talked about their bold plans to transform healthcare provision and keep the community at the heart of their decision-making and about the integral role of the voluntary sector in health and social care. Helen Cammack of interests.me gave a plenary session and later workshops that explored the promised offered by social media as a way to advance the work of voluntary and community organizations. Again, the inspirational message was one of hope (recognising the huge potential of social media as a way to advance a cause without a massive media budget) tempered by realism (that social media require creativity and persistence if they are to make a difference and that messages delivered online often don’t hit home as reliably as we think they do). The day ended with some compelling stories of individual efforts to set up organizations to make a difference across areas as diverse as time banking, tree planting and storytelling. The day as a whole demonstrated both the vibrancy and the struggles of the voluntary sector and emphasized the commonality of many of the issues being faced, across an incredibly diverse set of activities.
Cordery, Smith and Berger publish an intriguing examination of future scenarios for the charity sector in latest issue of Public Money and Management journal. To arrive at these scenarios the authors identify some key drivers of change apparent within the sector at present, and play out the possible interactions between these drivers. The analysis draws on familiar themes of population change, technological innovation and austerity as they pose challenges for the activities of charities in terms of the services that are required of them, the source of their funding and their relations with volunteers and clients. The drivers that specifically affect the charity sector are, the authors argue, fourfold: demographic shifts towards an ageing population beset by inequalities producing both an increase in potential volunteers to be managed and an increase in those who need voluntary assistance; technological changes that allow for crowd-sourcing and a global stage for campaigning but disrupt established networks; a constrained funding climate that may require charities to forge close alliances with government or corporate funders and in turn impact on charities’ missions and brands; and changing forms of volunteer engagement, with the rise in corporate volunteering and also virtual, or micro-volunteering enabled by digital technologies, each of which pose challenges for volunteer management. Mapping the four drivers together across two dimensions (from marketized to compassionate, and from local to global) leads to four thought-provoking extreme charity sector scenarios for 2045 in the “government-funded elite”, “corporate co-operation”, “home-grown” and “crowd-sourced” models. Within these models some potentially troubling risks emerge for the sector’s ability to recognise and respond to social need, depending on the path taken. Current charities will do well to use these scenarios to reflect on their long term future trajectory even as they strive to respond to immediate challenges on the horizon.
As Student Volunteering Week gears up for the launch of the 2017 event on February 20th so too does its social media campaign, active across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (#SVW2017). This initiative (now in its 16th year) builds on the long tradition of student volunteering as described by Georgina Brewis in her social history of student volunteering across a hundred years. Brewis showcases the enduring significance of student voluntary effort while arguing that it takes a distinctive form in the social and political conditions of each time in history.
Figures released last year (as reported by NCVO) showed a significant increase in the number of young people volunteering in recent years – a rise that was attributed in part to the success of initiatives and campaigns that raise awareness of volunteering and in part to the rise of online recruitment platforms that give easier access to opportunities. As a product of its time, Student Volunteering Week combines some features of these two factors – putting together a concerted online campaign with on-the-ground initiatives at universities, schools and colleges across the country connecting potential volunteers with opportunities to contribute their time and their skills where need arises. Many of these opportunities are not just one-off occasions for Student Volunteering Week, but ongoing efforts that are brought to a new audience through this event. Contemporary volunteering capitalises on the potential of digital technologies to connect people with opportunities but much of the work being done still takes a very recognisable form, involving ongoing face-to-face work with beneficiaries and other volunteers, getting the job done. Digital technologies complement and augment the volunteer experience and potentially bring new participants into the mix, but in many ways the student volunteering scene remains true to its historical roots.
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.
A recent article in the Guardian’s voluntary sector network by Zoe Amar outlines the sale of the challenges that charity sector faces as it adapts to the digital technologies. Many see the digital era as a game-changer for charities affecting every aspect of their operations, and yet the commentators quoted in Amar’s article suggest that the vision to make the necessary organizational changes and the skills needed to do so are in relatively short supply across the sector to the extent that some risk digital illiteracy and even obsolescence. The Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index for 2015 cited in the article tells a troubling story about the charity sector. According to this report the number of charities reporting lacking digital skills actually increased between 2014 and 2015, from 55% to 58%. Both scarcity of skills and lack of understanding of the relevance of digital opportunities are seen as to blame for the relative lack of digital maturity found in the charity sector as compared to other industry sectors. Amar’s article suggests that recruiting digitally savvy trustees to help build forward-thinking strategies and preparing to be both visionary and agile may be the answer for the charity sector.
A recently published study suggests that there is a positive correlation between volunteers’ use of the Internet and their commitment to voluntary work. Although the authors are careful to point out that correlation does not imply causality, the study, published by Emrich and Pierdzioch in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, offers some intriguing suggestions that by engaging with their traditional volunteers online non-profit organizations may be able to build a more satisfied and committed bodies of volunteers. The study comprised a survey among volunteers with the German Red Cross. A total of 1941 complete questionnaires were analysed. The study found that more intense use of the Internet, either for the voluntary work itself or for visits to the webpage of the GRC, correlated with higher levels of satisfaction with the volunteer’s commitment to the organization and a greater expressed willingness to increase that commitment. The authors suggest that these results may be interpreted in terms of the social capital associated with being a volunteer, concluding with the suggestion that “volunteers can use the Internet as a low cost and always available means that helps them to improve their connection to communication, decision-making and control processes in ‘their’ organizational unit and beyond”. This survey-based study of a single organization begs some interesting questions: might qualitative studies across a broader range of organizations be able to identify the mechanisms at play in more detail and could this offer a more nuanced perspective on the forms of voluntary work and digital engagement that benefit one another most?