2019 voluntary sector and volunteering research conference: summary highlights

The annual Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference, organised by VSSN and NCVO, took place on 10-11 September at Aston University, Birmingham. About 130 people attended this year, from academic and non-academic researchers to practitioners working in the sector who all came together to share findings and discuss the implications of research.

This year’s theme, ‘A civil society for the future’, presented major challenges for us to consider. One came up immediately in the first presentation by Asif Afridi, a former panel member of Civil Society Futures inquiry. He argued that civil society needs to give more power to communities and champion diverse, younger voices in decision-making, rather than as a last-minute thought. Another challenge was the recent momentum provided by the Civil Society Futures and the government’s Civil Society Strategy was now at risk of being overshadowed by Brexit.

Exploring civil society leadership

A major theme that emerged straight away was civil society leadership and power, where presenters explored different ideas of what leadership is. This began in a first breakout session with Malin Arvidson and Franziska Böhm from Lund University in Sweden, who presented their ongoing research project Civil Society Elites, which is studying civil society leaders in Sweden, Italy, Poland and the UK. Initial findings show that leadership of key UK civil society organisations had similar values and demographic, educational and career backgrounds to each other and to leaders in the private and public sectors. This paper also indicated that power, particularly in the UK, is often connected with class, ethnicity and gender.

A different idea of leadership came up in a paper presented by James Rees, based on research funded by Lloyds Bank Foundation. This paper explored how local, small-to-medium-sized voluntary organisations took a combined leadership approach to social problems like homelessness and food poverty. It found that organisations in the different contexts of Salford, Bassetlaw and Wrexham took grassroots (and often informal) collective response via activities, campaigns and interaction with more top-down politicians and government bodies.

A less formal way of getting involved

Location was also vital for more informal volunteering types. Tim Bidey presented on a report from Traverse and the Centre for Ageing Better on informal volunteering in later life in five communities with high deprivation. From putting out a neighbour’s bins to babysitting, research showed that people were primarily motivated by shared responsibility. However, how much they participated varied according to public spaces, for instance how many community centres there were, neighbourhood layout, local public transport, health, finances, and levels of trust.

These factors mattered less in a paper presented by Curtain University’s (Australia) Sumayyah Ahmad on ‘spontaneous volunteering’, where people use social media to respond to local disasters. Interviews with locals involved in an Australian bushfire response revealed that they found using social media, ie posting photos, pins and status updates, a more democratic, independent, less bureaucratic way of responding to disasters. This, Ahmad said, made life easier for emergency services who could better identify and involve spontaneous volunteering in emergency response.

Context matters for civil society impact

Despite major challenges ahead for civil society, our research team emerged from the conference feeling positive about the good quality research that we saw and how it might inform practice and policy in the future. When presented with the challenge of communicating findings to broader audiences, we know there’s still more to do. Please keep an eye out for blogs on conference prize winners Alison Body, Emily Lau and Jo Josephidou. We thank the staff at VSSN, Aston University and the presenters and hope to see you all next year!

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Oliver Chan Oliver is a researcher at NCVO, looking at the state of the volunteer sector and volunteering. Projects include the annual Almanac and reports exploring the changing nature of volunteering such as emerging employer, public service and family volunteering models, and government public service contracting with charities.

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