Some research on volunteering may do more harm than good

There is a wonderful scene in an episode of Yes Prime Minister called The Ministerial Broadcast, where Sir Humphrey and Bernard Wooley are discussing Jim Hacker’s proposal for the reintroduction of National Service. Sir Humphrey demonstrates to Bernard how, by asking two different series of questions, he can get his junior colleague to both agree to and oppose national service.

I was reminded of this recently in a session on influencing, run for members of the European Year of Volunteering 2011 working group, which I co-chair. A clip of this scene from Yes Prime Minister was used to illustrate the importance of changing the underlying narrative to a topic in order that people may be more favourably disposed to it.

That got me thinking about two recent reports on volunteering that have provoked some debate in the sector.

The first was the results of the latest (and last) citizenship survey on levels of volunteering which showed a slight decrease in formal volunteering and a slight increase in informal volunteering, both at levels (1 per cent) that I suspect are well within the statistical margin for error.

The second was the warm welcome given to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO) Manual On The Measurement of Volunteer Work, produced in cooperation with the Johns Hopkins University Centre for Civil Society Studies.  In short, this document sets out a standard method for use globally to count volunteers and assign a notional wage value to their work (i.e. what volunteer effort would cost if we had to pay people to do it).

I question whether either of these pieces of costly research will make any positive difference to the underlying narrative in society about volunteering. Will they help challenge the stereotypes the public have about volunteers and volunteering? Will they make any contribution to helping organisations engage new generations of volunteers? Will they help awaken sector leaders to the potential of volunteer effort as opposed to their endless pursuit of ever more money?

Sadly, the answer is no. In fact the ILO work may even be counterproductive, as Jayne Cravens recently observed in her excellent blog.

What we need is more work like the recent Pathways Through Participation report that gives us real insight into why people engage, why they stop engaging and what we can do about it. Or more
initiatives like Orange RockCorps which is making volunteering ‘cool’. Or work like the recent report From Fundraising To Resource Raising which challenges the belief that only cash gets things done.

Only then, when a future PM asks if anything has really changed in volunteering, will their Sir Humphrey be able to confidently reply, “Yes Prime Minister”.

5 Responses to “Some research on volunteering may do more harm than good”

  1. Stephen Cook

    The point about Yes Minister and the citizenship survey is spot on. Just before it came out the Office for Civil Society was bigging it up, saying how pleased they were and how they were going to give it some welly. Then the actual figures came out – equivocal at best – and we were left scratching our heads. And while they dwelt on the one per cent increase (hardly significant, as you say), everyone else pitched in on the one per cent decrease. Verging on the comic…and further confirmation that there are lies, damned lies and statistics.

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  2. Adrian Barrott

    Excellent post Rob and agree with Stephen’s observations. What I picked up with both of these reports was not just a ‘so what’ reaction, but also real concern over the amount of money which these pieces of work must have cost in relation to what little they revealed or contributed to the volunteering debate. Contrast that with the excellent Pathways Through Participation report – which is essential reading for insights into engaging (and clearly well worth the money invested in producing it).

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  3. John mohan

    It’s very easy to dismiss social surveys especially when they are ones which are complex to use and have received limited attention within the sector beyond the production of headline percentages. However, you can’t have your cake and eat it. If you want serious investigation of the benefits of volunteering, as in the several suggestions made by Jane Cravens, then you are not going to be able to do that with small-scale case studies alone, such as Pathways through participation, of 100 or so individuals. You will need large-scale social surveys. I wouldn’t suggest that we should make policy on the basis of either of these methods on their own – both are needed, as long as the research has been carried out robustly. That’s certainly the case with the Citizenship Survey, which was a tried-and-trusted nationally-representative survey.

    As for the findings from the Citizenship Survey, I agree that some of the debate is comical, but you can’t just dismiss the survey on the basis that it’s expensive (it measured a number of things, not just volunteering) or that you “suspect” there are no statistically-significant differences between the last year of the survey and its predecessor (it is easy enough to work this out, and the survey website even gives a ready reckoner to enable you to do this, so you can actually evaluate whether the differences between years are significant). It is easy to get fixated on headline figures but there is much more in the survey than that. The more important point is whether those figures mask changes in the social pattern of volunteering, or in the distribution of effort across groups of the population. That will require more in-depth analysis of the individual-level data to compare results for 2010-11 with previous years. That will give us better insight into whether or not patterns of engagement are changing than simple comparisons of headline rates.

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  4. Rob Woolley

    I think this comes down to what research we want, and what is useful for peak bodies and volunteer-involving organisations. There’s probably no easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Do smaller not-for-profits want practical, community-based pieces of research that support and suggest practical methods for engaging volunteers? Would a Volunteer Centre value research that recommends alternative ways of fundraising? Maybe a peak body would favour some broad, large-scale surveys and investigations with key stakeholders that provided genuine insight into changing forms of volunteering and provided a base for future advocacy and operations?

    At some point, the sector has to look ‘upstream’, and reports like Pathways Through Participation (while extremley useful for grassroots organisations) don’t hold much water with policy-makers.

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  5. Melow Meldrew

    Why offer Tesco’s free labour they don’t have to pay or employ after, whilst 12,000 jobs just went to migrants ? The state is abusing our youth and the sick and the unemployed, charity hasn’t a hope of finding work for 2 million people, when themselves use unpaid help it looks a bit suss frankly, the object of employment is to get a WAGE, not for rich business to take advantage of our young people for nothing. It Just looks like Charity is hoping to pick up funds for itself and with no expected major outcome at all or indeed paying staff that work for them. Did not the RNID withdraw from the whole debacle because the funding was so low, the charity couldn’t function as an assist to unemployed. I don’t see stacking shelves at supermarkets for 10 years for free encourages anyone. There are 6,000 young people in my area alone who will never see a wage….

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