Diversity and volunteering: Reflections from our latest report

Today, we have launched our report into diversity and volunteering, our third in a series of focused reports building on our Time Well Spent research. This report looks at diversity and volunteering from the perspective of volunteer-involving organisations.

The report covers:

  • what volunteer participation looks like
  • how diversity is viewed by volunteer-involving organisations
  • organisational experiences with diversity and volunteering
  • key issues and learning
  • key considerations for volunteer-involving organisations to take forward.

Why now?

2020 has been a uniquely challenging year. We started this research in December 2019 and while we anticipated that the findings would be challenging, we could not foresee that the events of 2020 would have such an impact. Covid-19 and the global anti-racism movement have made this year both turbulent and an opportunity for change. In many ways, the challenges of 2020 have highlighted why diversity is so fundamental.

The majority of our research was carried out before March 2020, with some follow up data collection taking place in the second half of the year to gain insight into the impact of covid-19 and the anti-racism movement. This has led to a report of two halves: a before and after.

We found that while organisations have been grappling with the impact of the pandemic on their funding, service users and volunteers, there is also scope for organisations to be forward looking and to recognise the need to build an inclusive organisation where volunteers from all walks of life feel they belong and are welcomed.

For many in the sector, there has never been a better time to make volunteering more inclusive.

Some of the things we learned and what your organisation should consider

Organisations tend to work within two volunteering frameworks

The organisations we spoke to seemed to be working within one of two (or both) volunteer frameworks in relation to diversity and inclusion:

  1. Volunteers should reflect the organisation’s service users – this framework might include organisations that serve a community of interest and would also value volunteers with lived experience related to their mission.
  2. Volunteers should reflect the locality or country where the organisation is based – this framework would be based around reflecting the local, regional or national population and would require an organisation to understand the demographics of the community where it is based.

Deciding on who you want to engage with and what framework makes sense for your volunteers is an important first step. Once decided, you will then need the data to understand the demographics of the target group you are reaching out to.

External perceptions of the organisation play a big part in addressing diversity in volunteering

Organisations fed back numerous concerns they had on how they’re perceived externally may impact on the diversity on their volunteers:

  • Public opinion about the organisation is not always positive or accurate
  • Volunteers are not all motivated by the same causes and so may not want to volunteer and support it
  • There may be misconceptions about the nature or requirements of the volunteer roles
  • Organisational branding and marketing may leave some volunteers feeling excluded

It is important to assess how your organisation may be perceived by the people you are hoping to attract as volunteers. This is of course not a static or one-off exercise but rather an ongoing and long-term process for organisations to manage, requiring ongoing commitment.

Making volunteering more accessible involves removing barriers

Organisations highlighted the processes of their organisation which were currently making it more challenging to be inclusive at a practical level. Some of the most common barriers included:

  • the volunteer recruitment process being intimidating or daunting
  • training being an onerous process that requires a time commitment that is inflexible and lengthy
  • the accessibility of physical spaces and of information creating barriers for people with disabilities, those for whom English is not their first language or those with low levels of literacy
  • how (or if) out of pocket expenses are reimbursed
  • current volunteer roles with requirements that excluded certain groups of people.

Organisations shouldn’t just look at who is volunteering, but how their volunteering opportunities are organised.

Embedding inclusion and diversity in the organisation in multiple ways builds common understanding and shared values across the organisation

Many organisations we spoke to were looking at their internal culture and how to address imbalances of power between stakeholders by doing less ‘to’ and more ‘with’ service users. Since the recent anti-racism movements, organisations were more likely to talk about the importance of embedding diversity across their organisation and activities.

Being honest and authentic is key in embedding diversity in your organisation. It is important for organisations to engage volunteers and value the small steps they’re taking on their diversity journey. It is also important to explore how to improve practices in order to address systemic and structural discrimination.

What’s next

You can read the full findings from the report online and also download a PDF for offline reading. At the end of the report, we have included a list of practical questions for organisations to consider. We hope to conduct future research that takes a more focused approach to diversity and volunteering by looking at the volunteers’ experience.

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Keeva is a senior researcher at NCVO. She supports the research team across a number of different projects.

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