All posts by gilliansymon

About gilliansymon

Gillian is Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has particular research interests in the use of technology in work and non-work contexts, as well as in identity at work, sociomateriality and qualitative research methods. She is currently involved in an EPSRC-sponsored research project exploring the links between digital technologies (lie social media) and work-life balance: The Digital Brain Switch Project.

Publishing Social Media Research

Have you experienced problems getting your social media research published? Dr Sarah Glozer (Royal Holloway, University of London) and Dr Chris Carter (University of Nottingham) are organising an event around the challenges of publishing research based on social media data in the management/organizational field. Taking place on July 25th in Nottingham, speakers and attendees will have the opportunity to share and discuss their own experiences and learn from others.
Follow the link to learn more and sign up.


Can we still distinguish voluntary work from other forms of work?

One of the issues facing many researchers and policy-makers is how to differentiate between various kinds of volunteering in order to understand different kinds of experiences. Consequently a typology of volunteering seems like it would be a very helpful tool for the sector.  This week we see such a typology – based on differences in motivations and activities – published in the journal ‘Sociology’.

From interviews with 30 volunteers, Mihaela Kelemen, Anita Mangan and Susan Moffat distinguished four categories of types of volunteering

  • Altruistic: Perhaps most readily associated with voluntary work, volunteering as activities that help the local community
  • Instrumental: Possibly on the rise in the current economic context, volunteering as activities that enable individuals to improve their CVS
  • Militant: also possibly on the increase as social services face increasing cuts, volunteering as activitism
  • Voluntolds: encompassing corporate volunteering schemes and political policies that ‘encourage’ benefit claimants into volunteering

However what is particularly interesting about this typology is that the authors argue the boundaries between categories are very permeable.  For example, while some volunteers seemed to be ‘voluntolds’, this also involved the altruism of ‘giving something back to the community’.   The recognition that we can construct typologies but that they will always be inter-related reveals the complex nature of volunteering and is an argument for not setting up false dichotomies between volunteering groups.  More fundamentally, Kelemen et al argue that it calls into question any very firm distinction between volunteering and paid work.  Indeed they suggest that given the activities volunteering encompasses – planned work that delivers a service and is not necessarily a matter of personal choice – it should be considered as ‘work’.

In the 21st Century, digital technologies are also implicated in a narrative of increasingly permeable boundaries between life and work.  While Kelemen et al’s research does not consider the role of technologies in volunteering, there are clearly points of contact.  Our research assumes fluidity between using digital technologies for different kinds of (paid or unpaid) activities and adopts a generally dynamic construction of digital volunteering.

The relationship between on-line and off-line volunteering

It has been assumed that those taking part in off-line volunteering are a different group from those taking part in on-line volunteering.  Indeed, there has been some concern that those engaging in on-line volunteering were less committed and engaging in ‘clicktivism’ as a very minimal type of involvement.  However new research by Jennifer Ihm, published in Voluntas recently, suggests that these assumptions need to be re-examined.

Based on the results of a large scale survey in the U.S. , Ihm  concludes that we can differentiate between low level volunteers and high level volunteers and that the latter engage with volunteering more often and in more organizations than the former, whether this is on-line or off-line.  In other words , committed volunteers use both on-line and off-line channels to further their volunteering activities.  As Ihm concludes:

“volunteering is a complex activity where individuals manage their commitment and time to participate within varying organizational contexts, to different degrees, in order to maximize their reach to both online and offline spheres”.

However the results also indicate that lifetime volunteers (20+ years), perhaps because they began volunteering before online volunteering gained momentum, are less likely to move into the online sphere.

This research is very important in focusing on the relationship between online and offline volunteering and in its findings that the two are related.  In our research, the objective is to also explore this relationship, but in a more qualitative way.  If volunteers are engaging both offline and online, how do they negotiate these different kinds of interaction on an everyday basis?  Do they find that their experience differs even with the same organization across these two different spheres?   How can they integrate this intensive volunteering into already busy lives?

Ihm’s work is important in recognising online and offline are related, but this is only the tip of the iceberg in understanding volunteering in the digital age.

Embedding Social Value in Digital Design

Our research has been oriented to understanding the implications digital technologies have for volunteers’ experience of volunteering, whether in terms of mediating communications or supporting specific voluntary activities.  However, what are the implications for volunteers of the way these technologies were designed in the first place?  We were very interested to hear about the CAST team who operate out of the Impact Hub Brixton and seek to work specifically with non-profits to build technologies to support social ventures.  Just lately CAST (Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology) have been publicising the ‘Six Tenets of Tech for Good’ which seeks to embed a social engagement orientation in the design process itself, for example by promoting the recycling of hardware and software, the open sharing of digital developments, user-led design and social value orientation.  What seems particularly helpful in this manifesto is the promise to design technology that addresses the challenges non-profits face rather than coming along with ready made solutions.  Building these commitments into design sounds like a good idea and we are intrigued to hear more about how this particular approach may deliver a specific kind of digital experience for non-profit users.  Is it enough to try to have excellent user-oriented implementation and ongoing user evaluation plans or do we need to go further back in the process as CAST suggests, embedding social values in the design process from the beginning?

Small Charities Find it Difficult to Capitalise on Digital Opportunities

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?


The Passion of Volunteers as a Management Challenge

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



BREXIT, the Third Sector and the Digital

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.

Benefits and Challenges of Digital Media in Supporting Long Term Volunteer Engagement

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

Don’t Forget the Digital Volunteers

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’.

It’s Volunteers’ Week! ….

… 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!