Volunteering: time well spent?

Am I making a difference?

I reckon an increasing number of us are arguing that the future of the voluntary sector will take us back to our roots, a future where volunteering and social action will play a bigger role, and where voluntary organisations are the hubs of broader social networks. This change is driven by wider social and economic trends: scarcity (public funds), need (an ageing, atomised population), disruption (the rise of digital), abundance (altruism). In short, people want to do good as much as they ever did, but they want to do it differently.


outcome not income

But there’s a caveat. I reckon as a society we’re getting more concerned about whether we are making a difference when we’re doing our bit. I think we’re increasingly concerned too about whether in the act of doing good we may, unintentionally, being doing harm. While it’s a stretch to say that we’ve all turned into rational economic actors, I think we’re behaving more like investors. Again, context is important: austerity economics, a more educated Millennial generation and the blurring of boundaries between the sectors (and the tools we use) are all leading to a greater focus on whether or not we are making a difference. The question of our time is not ‘Am I doing some good?’, but ‘Am I making a difference?’.



So what?

Well, in what sounds like a fantastic whole day of discussing volunteering and measuring impact at yesterday’s National Volunteering Forum, I argued that we need to get better at thinking about how we understand, evaluate and then communicate the impact of volunteering. You can see my slides below. We need to do that for the volunteers who want to know if their time is well spent and whether or not they are leveraging other contributions. We need to do it for the social investors who might support good quality volunteer management – social investors who might be deploying earned, not inherited, money, who are comfortable with digital and data, and who demand metrics. And we need to do it for a sceptical public who want to know more about the role of modern charity and volunteering and who may read bad news stories about the former.

What if my volunteering isn’t time well spent?

This isn’t the blog post in which I’ll talk about the challenges of focusing on impact. There are too many of them. And as a result, too many excuses for not doing it. But there are clearly risks in the brave new world of doing good: what if we aren’t very impactful? What if we end up obsessing about the wrong sort of impact or outcomes? Will we get found out?

Here’s a case in point. A highly respected academic in our field, Rene Bekkers, and colleagues recently conducted a ‘meta analysis’ of other studies over the last 10 years in order to ask whether volunteering has an impact on volunteers’ health, subjective wellbeing, employability, and social relations. Have a read, its here. If you dont have time, here’s a quote:

The magnitude of the impact of volunteering on well-being is small. On average, the increase in subjective health and subjective well-being benefit due to changes in volunteering is about 1%…changes in one’s life cycle like entering or leaving voluntary work do not have a large impact on one’s health, well-being, career or social relations. In sum, voluntary engagement does enhance people’s welfare, but we should not expect miracles from participation in third sector activities.

In short, the answers are not very palatable for proponents of impact. There’s no evidence that volunteering has any impact on employability, while the impact on health and wellbeing is very small – and if anything, it is health and wellbeing that are the determinants of whether or not people volunteer. Ouch.

Are we asking the right questions?

Or maybe not. Its only by doing this sort of work that we start to ask better questions about whether volunteering is making an impact. Its only by doing this sort of work that we can challenge the sort of ‘binary’ impacts (Did you get a job as a result of volunteering or not?) that belie the sophistication of what we’re about. Its only by doing this sort of work that we can puncture the sort of over-claiming for volunteering as a magic ingredient that ultimately does no one any favours.

And its only by thinking about how we frame our impact that just maybe we start to challenge prevailing attitudes and orthodoxies. To use the example above again, in focusing so much on the impact on the volunteer, and his/her wellbeing, I wonder if we’ve lost sight of volunteering as an act of service? Is the focus on impact an extension of what has been termed vanity volunteering?

Either way, raising our collective game about understanding the impact of volunteering, and doing that at different scales (individual, organisational, societal) can only help us focus our collective desire to make a bigger difference and justify the proper attention that volunteering, and effective volunteer management, are now getting.

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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