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A Report on Volunteerism - Executive Summary
By Elisha Evans and Joe Saxton

Voluntary involvement is one of the most powerful change agents in history. In a globalised world, is volunteerism fading ? No, says this remarkable report, pointing out that it is our perception and approach to volunteerism that needs finetuning. "volunteering is more than a mere gift of time; it is an opportunity; a privilege; a stride towards greatness."

THE 21st Century volunteer - executive conclusion

A report on the changing face of volunteering in the 21st Century.
Commissioned by the Scout Association.
Elisha Evans and Joe Saxton. November 2005

(Reproduced for readers' benefit)

Conclusion: harnessing selfish altruism
"Only the non-profit institution can provide opportunities to be a volunteer and thus enable individuals to have both a sphere in which they are in control and a sphere in which they can make a difference." Peter Drucker

Volunteering is often seen both by volunteers themselves and the voluntary organisations they serve as a favour; a gift. This perception is shaped as much by the voluntary organisations that rely on desperate-sounding appeals to the grace and virtue of potential volunteers as by volunteers own sense that they are giving something for free. However, volunteering is more than a mere gift of time; it is an opportunity; a privilege; a stride towards greatness. In this day and age where UK citizens are less interested in their moral duties than they are in their spiritual and experiential development, voluntary organisations need to internalise and publicise this powerful message.

By tuning into volunteers' changing desires and expectations; appreciating the many benefits of volunteering (soft, hard and altruistic) and engaging with the key strategic issues outlined in this report, volunteer managers can begin to develop the volunteering product in a way that does it, and the organisation's cause, justice.

Throughout this report we have aimed to provide insights and ideas about how volunteering will change over the coming decade. In this conclusion we synthesise the nine key trends that we believe will be the most important in understanding volunteers and volunteering into the 21st Century.

If you remember nothing else, hold these key ideas up to the light:

Trend 1. The rise of the brain volunteer and the demise of the brawn volunteer
If there is perhaps a single theme that runs through all our trends and ideas concerning the future of volunteering, it is that 'volunteers are doing it for themselves'. Volunteers will increasingly want to know what is in it for them: whether it be career-experience, a life-changing experience, to use their skills, to build their workplace teams, to overcome loneliness or find that special friend. However, all this means is that volunteering experiences where people are simply asked to do the drudgery that paid staff will not do will be increasingly untenable (one charity we know used to have a room for volunteers where they searched the sacks of empty envelopes to make sure that no cheques had been left in!).

In a world full of competition, choice and consumer driven marketing, today's volunteer is used to getting their wants and needs met. It should therefore not be surprising that when they sign up with a charity, they will want and expect to be getting some of whatever it was that inspired them to volunteer. For many, this will be a stimulation of the old grey cells or some degree of experience, adventure or challenge.© nfpSynergy 2 The 21st Century Volunteer

Trend 2. The rise of the cause-driven volunteer and the slow decline of the time-driven volunteer
Alongside the change in the kind of volunteering experience that people are looking for is a change in what motivates people to volunteer. Sectoral accounts suggest that, in the past, people volunteered because they had spare time to give; who they gave it to was not as important as the need to fill their days. However, as people have more and more ways to spend their leisure time volunteering has to compete with many exciting alternatives. We believe this means that people will want to have a more rewarding volunteering experience or be more discerning about where they do their drudgery (or both). Either way, people will increasingly be as selective about whom they give their time to as they are about whom they give their money to.

Trend 3. The rise of the selfish volunteer
Take these two shifts together, and we have what we call 'selfish volunteers': people who are as interested about what they get out of volunteering, as what they put in. As some of the quotes in this report suggest, the idea of people who are 'selfish' about how they give their time is alien to volunteer managers. But there is a good role model: paid staff. Nobody would expect a person applying for a paid job to be uninterested in the salary, the holiday entitlements, the skills they might learn and how satisfying the job might be. So our prediction is that more and more volunteers will resemble staff in everything except how they get paid. Witness the way that volunteers are now suing charities if something about their volunteering was not quite what they thought it should be.

Trend 4. Volunteering needs to be more like fundraising (and fundraising needs to be more like volunteering)
Fundraisers and fundraising are becoming increasingly professional and professionalised. While the public aren't totally sure this is what they want, market forces for charities to raise more money drive the changes on. Charities invest in recruiting new supporters at a loss, because of their return over the long term. Charities hire a host of different fundraising specialists: individual fundraisers, corporate fundraisers, community fundraisers and the like. All of this has reaped dividends for those charities that have invested. The income of the largest 100 charities is growing much faster than the sector as a whole.

Compare this to volunteering management, which has just discovered the internal combustion engine. Professional volunteer management is in its infancy. Very few charities are prepared to invest in recruiting and nurturing volunteers the way they are prepared to do for donors. And there is no trade body equivalent to the Institute of Fundraising (with 4,000 members and no funding from government) nor the whole marketing and audience-orientated approach that is at the heart of modern fundraising.

Having said that the flow is not all one way. Volunteers are far more likely to use words such 'enjoyment', 'satisfaction' and 'achievement' to describe their experience than are donors, who tend to emphasise commitment, satisfaction and loyalty. So fundraising could benefit from understanding how it can give its donors an experience more like that of volunteers.

Trend 5. Volunteering as a factory for community social capital
How does society create cohesive communities? With great difficulty is one answer: particularly in urban areas or commuter-filled dormitory suburbs and towns. One of the difficulties in creating more social capital (broadly speaking the ways in which people come to interact in a locality) is that so few people need to get to know each other any more.

Volunteering has a role in creating those links because it is one of the ways in which people do get to know each other (another being the regular attendance at a place of worship). Door-to-door collections (such as those that take place in Christian Aid week) are one of the best ways in which people can meet their neighbours - on whose doors they might otherwise have no reason to knock. One of the ironies is that many fundraisers may target those streets that are traditionally most lucrative. And those streets may be the most lucrative because they already have the highest level of social capital (try saying 'no' to an envelope collector you know as opposed to one you do not).

To get round this fundraisers could be encouraged (even subsidised?) to knock on doors in areas where the very act of volunteering helps build communities in the long-term. Volunteering brings people together, helps people to know their neighbours and colleagues, and knocking on doors and asking for money is one of the simplest and most powerful ways for people to do that.

Trend 6. The rise of young activists and the decline of young volunteers
The current government has an obsession with volunteering - particularly youth volunteering. That in itself is no bad thing. But investing money alone is not enough; ideas and innovation are also needed. The worry is that too much of the money is invested in either the quasi-compulsory schemes that appear to be the outcome of the Russell Commission or in projects that are out of alignment with young people's interests and aspirations. Young people with social consciences are pro-activists (they are pro-active in making choices about how they spend their money, how they give time or money). So the kind of volunteering that appeals is not about giving time in the traditional way, but about being active global or local citizens.

In this sense organisations such as People & Planet (www.peopleandplanet.org), which works with students to help them take part in actions and activities that create a better world, are much more dovetailed with the youth psyche. Yet the government funding goes anywhere but to organisations that help young people ask why the world is the way it is, and how can we change it. Volunteering grants from government rarely fund campaigns - so it is severely hampered in being able to nurture active citizens, and in turn youth pro-activists (i.e. volunteers).

So if we want young people to volunteer, we must not call it volunteering and we must encourage activism and a social conscience, rather than the unfashionable and uninspired giving of time. Youth volunteering needs to have a radically different image, and activism (or pro-activism) matches that image perfectly.

Trend 7. Experience-seeking employee volunteers hunt in packs
Ask volunteer managers for their nightmare request and it is usually a group of employees who want to do something en masse on a given day to help with team-building. Yet the Faustian deal between charities and companies is increasingly heading in this direction. Charities want a large cheque with no strings attached, and companies want volunteering activities that will build their teams, improve store morale, root their companies into their local communities and give employees new and different experiences. Yet for charities this kind of volunteering is far from easy for most to deliver.

So the deal that will work best is where volunteering is seen as an activity that a company needs to pay for the privilege of having, and a corporate donation is the reward for delivering intangible benefits such as skills, increases in morale and satisfaction. The charities that can negotiate those deals are set for huge rewards (ask Habitat for Humanity).

Trend 8. From nursery to nursing home: integrating the experience of giving
Charities have taken the giving process and cleaved it in half like an enormous fruit. One half, the one called 'giving time' has been left virtually untended for the last quarter-century. The other half, the one called 'giving money', has been nurtured, loved, tendered and generally given all the attention.

The time has now come to re-integrate these two parts of the giving experience, for the simple reason that at most times in our 21st Century lives, people are rich in either time or money - but rarely both simultaneously. So if we want to keep supporters through all of their lives - from the nursery to the nursing home - we need to be able to respond to whatever the needs are in their lives at that point in time. As teenagers and students, people have time but not money. As 20-something couples, people have money but not time. As families with young children, people often have neither money nor time, but when the children leave home to spend money on university, the time floods back but the money goes on flowing out for a while longer.

So if charities want to keep supporters through all these socio-economic twists and turns, opportunities are needed for people to progress from one way of giving to another. To the commercial world this kind of match between product and lifestage is nothing new. Just look at how certain kinds of car are geared towards certain kinds of people. Successful charities will make sure that they integrate their 'giving' products so that their supporters can move seamlessly from one type of engagement to another and back again.

Trend 9. The most important idea of all: the productisation of volunteering
So what do charities do about all this? We have painted a fairly turbulent and exhausting portrait of volunteering thus far. We have presented far more challenges than solutions. So our very last point is perhaps the most important of all: how to respond to all these changes.

For us the key solution is to productise volunteering opportunities. By this we mean, giving time needs to be packaged (and marketed) just as fundraising now is. Fundraising now asks for specific amounts of money or specifies exactly how the money will be used - £2 will save a child's life, or rescue an abandoned pet, or help us answer a cry for help and so on and so on.

The donor knows exactly what is required of them and exactly how the money will be spent. Witness the success of child sponsorship or National Trust membership or committed giving in general. The donor is being asked to take part in something where the key elements are clear and prescribed. The amount is clear. The benefits are clear. The feedback is clear. How the money is spent is clear. People can engage knowing what they are letting themselves in for. Perhaps one of the best examples of the productisation of giving money is the challenge event - where, for example, people give up their holiday to ride bareback across the Gobi desert with a group of complete strangers, providing they can raise a specified amount of money.

Forgive us for saying so, but McDonalds can teach charities a thing or two about productisation. Not for them a menu without prices, a meal with an ill-defined portion size, or a restaurant waiting time that is unclear and unpredictable. The price is set, the contents are clear and the waiting time is (allegedly) low. And because it is really easy, people have a shorthand for ordering: a clear product name such as the Big Mac or the Happy Meal. People know exactly what they are getting, for better and worse with McDonalds.

Compare this to the average volunteering request, where the amount of time required is unspecified, the benefits are unclear, the duration is usually indefinite and how the organisation will use the time is unmentioned.

But productising the volunteering experience (making the appeal SMART, specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-related) may be relatively straightforward in many cases. Take the usual charity shop's volunteering request:

'Our shops need volunteers'
The step-by-step productisation of this request is easy:
Step 1: Our shop needs volunteers to help us for four hours once a week (how much time).
Step 2: Our shop takes £40 for each four-hour shift by a volunteer (the outcomes of the time).
Step 3: Will you be 1 in a 100? Our shop raises £40 for each four-hour shift by a volunteer and we need 100 volunteers to make each and every week (the tangibility of success).
Step 4: Will you be an 'ABCcharity shopaholic'? This shop is run 100 'ABCcharity shopaholics' who each give at least four hours a week of retail therapy that raises us £40 through the till (the branding of the product).

Not all requests to volunteer can be productised (or packaged if you prefer) so easily. The key ingredients are to identify how the gift of time can be standardised and packaged - given that many individual volunteering experiences will be different. Those involved in raising money are often the easiest. It should be straightforward to work out how long the average house-to-house collection takes and how much money it raises. But even those volunteering opportunities that are not about money can be packaged so that volunteers understand how much time will be needed each week, for how long, and what the benefits are to you and to them.

We believe that productisation is so important because it builds on so many of the successful techniques that fundraisers and the commercial sector have used to build their market and their success.

And finally.....
"Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know about Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know about the second theory of thermo-dynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. "

Martin Luther King

Volunteering is a universal gift. Substitute the word 'serve' for 'volunteer' and Martin Luther King expresses the universal potential of volunteering. We all have time (even if we do not all have money). And we can all give the gift of time to others: our children, our parents, our friends, our children's school, our street, our community and our world.

But giving time is a gift that gives back as well because giving time is now as much about what we get back, as what we give. To help people be altruistic, we need to help them be selfish. Volunteering can help volunteers overcome loneliness, meet friends, gain skills, get jobs, or just feel good about themselves. The selfish volunteer is not a bad person, or part of an unwelcome trend - it is at the heart of the future of volunteering.


This report was made possible only through the Scout Association's foresight, support and financial backing. Particular thanks to John Palmer for his insight and leadership and to Paul Wilkinson for his support and advice both of the Scout Association.

We would also like to thank the volunteering experts who generously contributed their words, ideas and insights for this report so that the sector as a whole could benefit. More specifically, thanks to Rob Jackson (now of Volunteering England but of RNIB when these interviews were conducted), Carolyn Myers (Oxfam), Dr Justin Davis-Smith (Institute of Volunteering Research), Kim Brunel-Osman (Student Volunteering England), Liz Smith (Girlguiding UK), Peter Hammond (The Samaritans), Richard Harries (Home Office Volunteering and Charitable Giving Unit), Rachel Salt (The Rugby Football League), John Ramsey (Citizens Advice) and Lesley Bourne (do-it.org.uk). We are also grateful to Paul Farthing (formerly of Target Direct now of Cancer Research UK) for contributing a very useful section on how to better target baby boomer volunteers. We could only use a fraction of all our interviewees' wisdom and insight - but their contribution percolates through every aspect of this report.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

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