Getting involved: more of the people, more of the time?

One of my favourite community champions is Tessy Britton, who has a great feel for what it takes to get people involved. Just as important, Tessy is great at moving beyond the stuffy, policy-wonky language I hear so often when we talk about people doing good things for others. Her latest project, an experiment to enable and grow large, mass-participation by the people of Barking and Dagenham, is aptly titled the ‘Every One, Every Day’ project.

The goal of everyone contributing to society, all of the time, made me think: that just about sums up what every politician, policy maker and charity professional has been trying to achieve for giving and volunteering in the 20 years that I’ve worked in the sector. And the needle has barely moved when we look at most measures of participation and engagement.

Is everyone, all of the time, remotely possible?

And what would it take to get a bit further towards that goal?

Some people, most days

I’m asking because we’ve just published the second edition of our round-up of all the data and evidence we have about the good things people do to support causes, people and places. Called Getting Involved (PDF, 3442KB), it deliberately ranges wider than activities (and language) we might feel most familiar with. We argue in it that people nowadays do much more than just give money or volunteer. We think that there’s a wide, and changing world of doing good things, what my colleagues variously call ‘participation’, ‘pro-social behaviour’ and social action, what Charles Handy recently suggested we start calling ‘ex-gratia’ work. The upshot is that we’ve brought together trends and data about people doing things for the common good, because they want to, not because they have to. And while much about how people get involved has changed, there’s also a surprising amount that has stayed the same.

First, and something we should never, ever tire of repeating, is that the British public are incredibly generous with their time, talents and resources. Much of this is mundane and goes unrecognised – it is everyday in a different sense. Despite fears of donor fatigue, slacktivism and general attention deficit from weapons of mass distraction, people still choose to get involved and support the things that they care about. There are inevitably ups and downs, but overall much to be positive about. But as I’ve already said, the language around this good work can be tedious and complicated. Until we find a better way of talking about it, its going to stay under the radar of public understanding.

One of the report’s authors, Lisa Hornung, has written more about the findings. My triptych would comprise three observations: first, people are finding new ways to express support for causes, such as crowdfunding or micro-volunteering. I especially like some of the citizen science examples. Although nominally about communities, they’re often more individualistic and some feel to me to be more in the mould of consumption. One of my favourite stats is that in less than twenty years, ethical consumerism has quadrupled to an almost £30bn market, while charitable giving has remained largely flat at £9bn. Is buying ‘good’ stuff the new giving?

Second, this world of social action is definitely not synonymous with just charities or the voluntary sector. I don’t think British society has quite woken up to just how much volunteering and community action underpins our public services. The King’s Fund, for example, estimates that there are 3 million people in health and social care. My local branch library is now entirely volunteer-run, liaising with professional librarians in the central library. And volunteers are doing more roles in the public services, often doing things that paid staff never did. I like the ‘Human SatNav‘ in a Wrexham hospital, by the way.

Finally, despite the charge that digital has made organising without organisations ‘ridiculously easy’, despite an Olympic hurrah, some very large statutory-funded interventions, and many attempts to get different people involved, it seems that there is little change about who is getting involved. This is best typified by charity trustees, where society is heavily dependent upon a civic core of hugely committed and valuable volunteers. We often celebrate the diversity of civil society as one of our core strengths, but that diversity clearly has its limits.

So, new ways of getting involved in more places and spaces, but pretty much still the same people getting involved. We still bond with people who are, roughly, similar to us more than we bridge across communities and engage with those who are different to us. And more people are arguing that digital tools and social media are driving us further apart.

Maybe none of this is a recipe for greater involvement across communities.

Making it easier to get involved

Assuming that increasing participation is a good thing – and I unashamedly think that it is, though not everyone does – what should we be thinking about for our next steps? Here’s a thought: I wonder if the best way to get more people involved is to stop fretting about whether enough people want to give their time or money? To be honest, I’m suffering from a bit of research fatigue from the drip, drip drip of studies that purport to reveal some new insight into donor or volunteer motivation. (The best one on charitable giving is here (PDF, 417KB).) So hold the thought that I’m wrong about ‘supply’ and start from a different position. Maybe we should instead be thinking about ‘demand’: are we creating the opportunities to get involved that fit in with how people live their busy lives? Are we designing user experiences that are enjoyable? And where we do create opportunities, are we doing the basics of recruiting, managing and recognising? Are we even asking people who are different to us, outside our circles?

In other words, do we need to stop assuming that we need to ‘activate’ citizens and instead ask ourselves whether what we’re offering fits, whether it’s appealing?

Maybe. Back to Tessy, who has developed some fantastic design principles (PDF, 11MB) for participation. The Barking and Dagenham project is testing these at a large scale. Within our own organisations, quite often there are quite simple steps that we can make to our opportunities more appropriate to how people live their lives, such as splitting roles into two, as the Scouts are trying with their scout leader roles. Our podcast on flexible volunteering, and slides below, offer some insights. As an aside, some of this is going to be about digital, despite the concerns I outlined above. Some of the best examples blend the digital and real world experience – try volunteering for Parkrun, if you want to see what I mean. Digital makes the transaction easy, while the real world experience is both fun and flexible.

A basic transcript can be found on the full slideshare page.

We can probably do more at a strategic level, too, to make it easier to volunteer. I heard an anecdote the other day that one of the barriers to volunteering in an NHS hospital was that volunteers had to pay for their own uniforms – which I can see happening if your organisational leadership’s starting point is that volunteering is free labour. So creating opportunities that are properly resourced (eg with relevant training, reasonable costs reimbursed) will not only create more impactful roles (as Nesta have argued (PDF, 2MB)), but will widen access. At NCVO, we still think it is worth piloting an access to volunteering fund for people with disabilities, similar to the access to work fund government already operates. Unemployed people also face barriers, and clearing up the rules and red tape for those who want to volunteer could widen engagement.

And finally, if our approach to recruiting trustees is anything to go by, we probably need to get a bit better at asking different people from different places. We know that people tend to give or volunteer because they’re asked – but if we’re only asking our own social networks, we’re more likely to recruit people who are like us – we all suffer from unconscious bias. It seems to me that we need to think a bit more about who is getting involved, not just how many people are getting involved, and that in charities certainly we need some more uncomfortable – but ultimately fruitful – conversations about diversity.

Getting Involved – How People Make a Difference – is here (PDF, 3MB). Thank you to the Minister for Sport and Civil Society, Tracey Crouch, for writing the foreword.



‘Volunteer Diversity Tree’ image courtesy of Volunteer Weekly

This entry was posted in Policy, Research and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

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

Comments are closed.