New Researcher Sessions

12 November 2013

Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference

10th – 11th Sept 2014

James Davies, PhD student - University of Strathclyde

James Davies

When I was told that, as a new researcher, I would only be able to attend certain sessions at this years conference, I felt frustrated. The fact I would not be able to listen to the ‘big names’ in my field was disappointing and I felt it would prevent me from getting the most from the event. However, as I sit on the train returning home I can say without doubt that the presentations I attended and discussions I participated in were as stimulating as any others I have engaged in during my career. A sentiment reinforced continually by the ‘big names’ who repeatedly commented on the strength of the new researcher papers.

The opening from Julia Unwin (JRF) set an inspirational tone highlighting issues around impact and evidence, a narrative that would continue to re-emerge. Resonating with my own research, Julia argued we ignore the voices of those in need today at our peril. It is those people who will be at risk of social exclusion tomorrow. It was all the more pertinent, therefore, to see papers exploring the experiences of volunteers as well as power dynamics between ‘privileged’ and ‘underprivileged’ volunteer-recipient relationships.

Sarah Mitchell’s research into how volunteer organisations brand themselves, drew attention to the role of social and personal context when people select an organisation to volunteer with. Similarly, Trisha Magennis highlighted the importance of religious and political frameworks in shaping how and where people opt to spend time volunteering while Lorna Hunter argued for the role of emotion in the relationship between leaders and followers in organisations.

In the discussions following presentations we engaged in detailed analysis about what volunteering is, particularly in relation to notions of choice and coercion. Does the priest who tells a young person to volunteer or the school who strongly encourage it change the volunteer’s status as a volunteer? Are they involved in a game of ‘voluntold’? 

Michelle Martin’s experience of working at a volunteer centre in Greenwich, in addition to her analysis of the 2012 Games, introduced us to ‘glam volunteering’ and in doing so prompted us to ask how we balance the range of exciting and mundane volunteering roles.

An issue that prompted me to reflect on my own research was the professionalisation of volunteering. My engagement with the literature in this area, particularly around government enforced volunteering and heavily employment-centric volunteering, led me to believe moves towards formalising or, as Victoria Morris put it, commodifying volunteering disempowered volunteers and detrimentally changed the meaning of volunteering. While I still consider this to be the case to a large extent, it was interesting to hear from Alice Hogwood whose participants desired a certain degree of professionalisation. A point echoed by an audience member, who similarly argued volunteers desired an element of professionalisation as they felt it gave more value to their work. 

Elsewhere, presenters argued for a holistic approach to volunteer management as well as the research process. Shaun Delaney contended volunteer and organisational expectations must be aligned from the beginning so neither party feels let down or devalued by the other. Several presenters highlighted how the impact of volunteer programs and research can be considered, measured and resultantly lead to social change - as called for by Julia in the opening remarks. The use of technology to explore and promote volunteering, particularly with regards to big data and social media, were also explored in the new researcher sessions.

My initial concerns about missing out during the conference, were wholly misplaced. The width and breadth of topics covered from a range of disciplinary perspectives gave the sessions the feeling of being a conference in their own right. This post doesn’t and couldn’t cover the full scope of what was presented nor give credit to all the speakers, organisers and delegates who made the sessions so enjoyable for me. I can’t wait to return next year hopefully with some preliminary findings from my own research and to see how others have progressed with their work.


Scope of James’s PhD 

To qualitatively explore the volunteering experiences of young people aged 12-18, from disadvantaged backgrounds to better understand how they conceive volunteering, the forms of volunteering they engage in and the benefits, as well as drawbacks, participating has had for them.

Contact details: 

E-mail James Davies




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