My musings on Volunteering Research

29 September 2014

From the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference

Kathleen Doyle

I was lucky enough to attend the Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference this year. Two full days away from work to think, learn and reflect and to enjoy the beautiful City of Sheffield... it was fantastic! 

For years now, we have been building the volunteering evidence base and this year’s conference was just brilliant in terms of the number of papers submitted.


Here are some highlights on what I presented - as well as what I learned.


If you are richer than those living around you then you’re more likely to volunteer. 

Presenting with Dr. Alasdair Rutherford, one of the most interesting things we discovered was that a relative income effect occurs when people volunteer. What does this mean? Well…

We know that the richer you are the more likely you are to volunteer. But we’ve discovered it’s not quite as simple as we first thought. Jane and Anne earn the same amount of money. Jane lives in a poor area while Anne lives in an affluent area. Thing is… Jane is more likely to volunteer. Surprised? I was.

This means the people and place around us has an effect on an individual’s decision to volunteer. Read more in our conference paper.

Many ingredients are needed to create lasting social change

Julia Unwin CEO of Joseph Rowntree Foundation

I have to admit I was in utter awe of Julia...a truly inspiring speech! The key message was influencing and creating lasting social change is neither easy nor linear; rather it requires many ingredients and is often opportunistic: 

  • Numbers are always good - but it’s about using different kinds of evidence to create a compelling and emotional story: 
    • Research; 
    • Evidence from service delivery about what works and importantly what doesn’t; and
    • Evidence about the lived experience of people – often overlooked but critical, and which many voluntary organisations are well placed to collect and have a role to share.
  • You need a  burning issue which can be solved e.g. domestic violence; social isolation 

  • Organisations need to work together, across sectors, with agitators and allies

  • Bring emotional story together with the power of social media, partners, friends, allies and with solutions that, even if not proven, have a chance of working


The role of advocacy is being squeezed 

Mike Aiken and Leila Baker at Institute of Voluntary Action Research shared initial findings that suggested the role of advocacy in small and medium sized community-based organisations is being squeezed by austerity. These organisations are best placed to evidence the lived experience of, and the changes needed to help, the disadvantaged people they represent. But they face incredible challenges in delivering services where these roles are poorly funded. 

Is it reasonable to ask these organisations to play a role in advocating for change? The danger is that instead of preventing/eradicating the issue we could potentially continue to plaster over the real change that’s required.


Do rural voluntary organisations experience a double whammy of being spatially isolated as well as facing austerity cuts? - No they don’t!

Looking at voluntary and community sector organisations in rural and urban areas in Cumbria, Victoria Bell found that rural organisations are less reliant on public funding in comparison to their urban counterparts. While rural organisations face unique operational challenges in delivering services, they are avoiding a double whammy of the austerity cuts facing urban based organisations. 

This research reminded me of the survey we carried out recently in Scotland on local charities delivering services. We also found that local charities in rural areas of Scotland were less reliant on public funding and instead were sustained through membership and fundraising. See our survey of Volunteering in Scottish Charities.


Is transferring public assets to volunteers unsustainable? 

A relevant question given the Local Government and Regeneration Committee are currently hearing evidence on the proposed Community Empowerment Bill. Our response indicates that the Bill is procedural, does not recognise the critical role of volunteers, has limited provisions to actually empower communities and does not provide adequate resources and support to enable and facilitate volunteers in the transfer of public assets.  

So, I was delighted to hear Dr Geoff Nichols research on the transfer of public leisure facilities toward volunteer delivery. He found sustainability - economic and volunteer involvement - a key issue. People are mobilised and campaign against the closure of a leisure service but are then expected to quickly change mindset and operate as a business and deliver that service. The challenge lies in turning from campaign mode to delivery mode. Not an easy task! This poses a concern for the sustainability of volunteer delivery of public assets. 

Got any questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you.


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