The end of volunteering

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People supporting their communities and making meaningful contributions to society without being paid is something that we all want loads more of.

It’s human beings at their cooperative, collaborative best and it happens all over the place, everyday, through informal activities that are built naturally into healthy communities and relationships.

However, volunteering, as it is presented in our society, in government policy and in the charity sector, has become something very different and now is the time, when we can’t waste a penny of investment, to radically change our approach.

This might all seem a bit semantic, but it’s more than that.

The public and social sectors have been watching levels of social capital in communities decline for 50 years, tracing decreases in social trust, associational life and local behavioural norms and increases in a range of social fall-outs as a result.

The response, rightly, has been to find ways of rebuilding and fostering this participation in different ways. The mistake, however, has been to apply a dodgy approach to designing unpaid participation in society and we have emerged with the odd beast that is now defined, promoted and measured generically as volunteering.

How does this volunteering look as it is presented today?

Firstly, it has become generic and, as a result, a fuzzy, weak concept.

Nothing else that we love or find useful in the world around us is presented in this way. Sainsbury’s don’t run ads for “food”, Google doesn’t market “digital tools” and museums don’t put “come see exhibitions!” in the local paper – they market specific products, tools and experiences that we will enjoy and find useful for specific reasons. By taking a different approach, volunteering has become a meaningless umbrella concept.

Secondly, as an umbrella concept that covers an array of (often very important) activities, it is defined broadly as something that you should do because it’s considered “good.

From everything we’ve learnt over 8 years of behaviour change work, products, services or experiences whose primary, consumer facing attributes are about “doing good” or “being green” are inherently weak.

For a whole series of reasons, credibility of the things that ask for our time or money does not flow strongly from generic goodness or greenness – they flow from genuine usefulness, relevance or desirability.

Despite this, use of volunteering as an umbrella concept seems unstoppable and every year more generic “Do Something Good” type campaigns appear.

They are all founded on survey conclusions like “75% of young people / Londoners / BME students want to volunteer but just don’t know where to look.” (maybe someone should ask if there might be a gap between actual and reported motivations and perceptions on this one?) They all justify themselves through a case study culture and dodgy stats. And they all cost millions and millions of pounds.

Thirdly, lots of attempts have been made to layer other sources of credibility and relevance on top of this generic, fairly unappealing grouping of activities.

Formal volunteering rates have remained completely flat every year for the last twenty years. Given the substantial shifts we’re going through to an older population and therefore an increase in numbers of the most overrepresented volunteer demographics, as well as the hundreds of millions of investment in youth volunteering, these stable rates represent a regression.

As a response to this, and particularly to low youth representation, there have been several types of solution emerge:

- A focus on personal development benefits, like “something to put on the CV” and training opportunities

- The addition of incentives and rewards, like free concert tickets, mobile credit or letters from the Mayor

- A huge move towards “peer-lead” activities, where participants define what they want to address and how they want to do it

All of these have merits and there’s no reason why personal development, rewards and customisation shouldn’t be part of opportunities. Just as consumer products and services use these, especially the last two, so participation design can.

But, the focus on these represents a flaw and one that has lead us down a blind alley. These contrived, extrinsic motivations make the activities themselves look meaningless – it sounds like you’re saying “do something a bit rubbish so you can get something good out of it in other ways.”

When you combine these three main elements of modern volunteering campaigns and programmes, you end up with an approach that defines, promotes and measures participation in, at best, odd ways and, at worst, counter-productive and destructive ways, by infecting lots of meaningful, important activities with the dreaded volunteering badge.

So, what represents a different approach?

We’re not pretending to have all the answers, but a lot of the team, including me (especially me!) have worked on volunteering programmes that have built in all these mistakes and are frustrated to see them repeated over and over. We’ve also got to understand a different way of looking at participation.

So, from all this, here are a couple things that we’ve learnt:

1. Start with a blank sheet

One big problem here is that so many organisations sit down to figure out the solution to a problem with “use volunteers” written into the end result. Funders can take a good chunk of the blame for this: the number of challenges and funding opportunities that come with stipulations that you have to use volunteers is worryingly high. Even the type of volunteers is often pre-defined, such as young or BME volunteers.

But how can you possibly know that volunteers are part of a good solution before you start?

We have something called the Blank Sheet Rule at We Are What We Do, which means that before examining a social issue and the behaviours that affect it, the solution can’t be pre-determined in any way. This forces us to create something that is absolutely fit for purpose. Sometimes, people doing things without being paid is part of that solution, sometimes not.

The danger of the opposite approach is that you end up with odd, contrived solutions, that use volunteers in odd, inappropriate ways, which is why so many walls in kids’ playgrounds in East London get repainted 5 times a year by city workers. Moreover, experts and trained professionals are often badly devalued by an assumption that gaps can be filled and money saved by volunteers, even if they are totally miscast.

2. Focus on the destination, not the journey

This principle leads on from the first and tries to make sure that the outcome of the activity is meaningful and valuable.

The problem is that programmes are often designed with a near total focus on the volunteer journey, with all the investment going into areas like training, support and retreats.

Yes, the experience in any programme should be well supported and that may involve training and time in different environments. But those bits shouldn’t be filled in first. People are primarily motivated and rewarded by the credibility of what they are contributing to and the real value of what is achieved, not by how they get there. There may be subsidiary motivations in gaining skills, experience and making new friends, but these are only valuable if they fall in alongside a compelling overall goal.

Millions of people contribute billions of hours of time to Wikipedia, for example, because that participation has many layers of intrinsic value, starting with the fact that it is making a major contribution to human knowledge and, in a day-to-day sense, a strong community in which social status in defined by commitment, accuracy, rule-abiding etc. No contrived layers of extrinsic value need to be added to Wikipedia, yet everyone is doing it for free.

Local cooperation and mutual support flow naturally within strong, healthy communities. But we all know that such communities are not the norm in modern Britain, so we do have to design ways for people to come together around issues, challenges and ambitions.

The most important features of an activity that is competing for people’s time are relevance and credibility – and these can come in many forms. They may be based on very local needs and relationships or they may be based on huge, global cultural ambitions, but they have to be real, not fabricated.

Helping people work together to make our society better is an inspiring, important ambition. But that doesn’t mean that when unpaid activities get contrived and bundled together into a scheme or programme that they become inspiring and important because a politician, charity or company says so.

The future isn’t about a new branding concept or a new word for volunteering or a new advertising campaign. It’s not about creating the ultimate hub for volunteering opportunities either.

Millions of people are doing millions of things to support each other everyday, without noticing that they are doing something that a government department or charity might describe as citizenship or volunteering. It’s just a natural, credible part of their lives. Everything new that we design to increase these activities has to appear just as naturally and just as credibly and has to be based on meaningful, valuable contributions to society.

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3 Responses to “The end of volunteering”

  1. David Wallace says:

    The post addresses most of the issues and concerns I have had with the whole concept of volunteering. I am suspicious when a government who is intent on making huge cuts in the public sector, they say so as to reduce the deficit, and at the same time reduce income tax on the highest earners in the country, promote the idea of volunteering. No matter how they dress it up if one sees profiteers making money from the efforts of volunteers then the idea of volunteering is compromised.

    • Nick says:

      I think the current government is in a bit of a mess around volunteers. The concept feels like a triple win for them: address social issues / improve service delivery, save money and equip individuals to continue to lead in their communities. So volunteering is at the centre of their Big Society vision and, as it stands, one of the only way they can see of making it real.

      But it doesn’t have to stay like this. There are lots of people that were involved in flawed post-Russell Commission volunteering delivery during the Labour Government that can help stop the same mistakes being repeated. And, to the coalition’s credit, they have been open to new ideas and approaches.

  2. [...] This blog post doesn't really urge us to give up on volunteering, but rather to talk about it in different ways and use it more strategically. One way, the writer says, is to stop thinking of volunteering as a journey and focus more on the destination.  [...]