Volunteering and Sustainable Development: Home and Away

Workshop Report by Cliff Allum

On the 4th and 5th of December 2018, a group of 30 academics and practitioners came together to discuss volunteering and sustainable development – both in the UK and internationally. The workshop was a joint initiative of the Third Sector Research Centre and the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham and the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois. It was generously supported with funding through a BiRimingham­Illinois Partnership for Discovery, EnGagement, and Education (BRIDGE) seed grant.

The conference ran for one full day exploring various themes concerning volunteering and sustainable development with a second half day focusing on possible ways forward through research collaborations.  Participants were invited to attend either or both days of the event.  Participants were drawn from both academic and practitioner contexts and included a small number based outside the UK.  A full list of participants is available.

Day One: Bringing together research, policy and practice across volunteering and development

On behalf of the BRIDGE partners, Angela Ellis Paine welcomed all participants to the event. She then introduced Dr Ben Lough to provide the lead presentation.

Session 1: Presentation by Dr Benjamin Lough, University of Illinois

Ben launched the event by providing an overview of the key issues concerning volunteering - particularly ‘volunteering for development’ (V4D) - and its link to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030. 

He posed the question as to the distinctive contribution of volunteers, looking at the context where volunteering provided something that the market and governments could not provide well, and the area of co-production.  He argued that people-led approaches were important, and that volunteer engagement was necessary to achieve sustainability objectives.  Volunteers, however, were often undervalued and overlooked.  Volunteering needed to be understood as more than just cheap labour.

Turning to the distinctive contribution of volunteering and the role of research in evidencing it, Ben referenced the work undertaken by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) on valuing volunteering, how volunteers in citizen science contributed to data generation, and the State of the World Volunteering Report (SWVR 2018), which had involved 29 volunteer researchers gathering data from around the world. This report highlighted the link between volunteering and community resilience.

Ben highlighted challenges when relating the SDGs to governments in the Global North: development and volunteering tended to work in silos; V4D is something that ‘happens elsewhere’; and the limited attention given to V4D by practice agencies.  While the processes in the UK of people-centred localisation looks to be positive for V4D, links are not often made to the SDGs. There is arguably a need to consider situations where volunteers in the UK and abroad are better prepared as development actors.

In conclusion, Ben referenced the processes used by national governments to submit reviews of their implementation of the SDGs.  The UK Government have set up a website to gather case studies highlighting the implementation of the SDGs, and Ben noted that the Australian Government’s Voluntary National Report (VNR) could be a positive example of what could be developed in the UK regarding volunteering’s contributions to the SDGs.

In the discussion that followed Ben’s presentation several issues were explored, including:

  • The extent to which those in leading roles understand how Agenda 2030 operates at the local level
  • Whether the UK Department for International Development (DfID) was the best government department to be leading the coordination of the implementation of the SDGs and the VNRs
  • How to how to boost the profile of volunteering into the National Situational Analysis within the implementation of the SDGs in the UK.
  • The challenges associated with, and potential explanations for, regional variations in levels of volunteering within the UK
  • Development strategies do not filter down to volunteering and budget lines are not allocated to volunteering
  • The extent to which volunteers themselves identify as change agents or “development actors”
  • What happens when volunteers do not act in the interests of states or donors?
  • The Future Generation Act in Wales is a way forward to look at SDGs

Session 2: Away: Volunteering for Development in the Global South

Three speakers kicked off a debate on volunteering for development in the Global South, by offering brief presentations summarising their perspectives on the subject.

Matt Baillie Smith, Northumbria University

Matt reminded us that this is not a new debate but, in developing themes related to ‘silences’ and ‘language’, he highlighted areas that have been missing in the discussions to date, for example:

  • Recognition of local volunteering: most volunteers in the Global South come from the Global South, but these volunteers are not the prime focus in V4D literature and policy
  • The issue of payment of volunteers and whether this is appropriate, and how the answer may differ in different contexts
  • A lack of research evidence on the contribution of volunteering to Grand Global Challenges
  • Why is nothing documented about Global South solidarity, e.g. Angola and Cuba?

These biases are reflected in the language that is used in V4D practice and research.  We talk of hosts and beneficiaries; local and international; formal and informal. This language lacks a level of rigour and leads to a set of assumptions around service delivery. The language is arguably structured for the convenience of international organisations and academic discourse.

Matt turned to the potential of assemblage thinking.  How are things formed and renewed in particular movements? How does the idea of volunteering get made and unmade in different contexts? Volunteering does not fit established categories.

Christopher Millora, University of East Anglia

Christopher outlined his research on the power of volunteering and participatory development. In this approach, the roles of volunteers and beneficiaries can both be understood as development actors. He posed the question as to whether participation is necessarily positive; volunteering can, for example, put people at a further disadvantage.

He posed three areas that needed to be considered:

  • What are we asking and how are we getting the answers?
  • What kind of volunteer experiences are we trying to create?
  • What kind of development does volunteering facilitate?

Janet Clark and Steadman Noble, VSO

Janet and Steadman shared perspectives based on the VSO experience, which included the extensive research with the IDS/VSO study on “Valuing Volunteering” and evaluation of the International Citizen Service. The relationships inherent within volunteering were highlighted as being particularly important for understanding its contribution.

The presentation looked at issues associated with measuring volunteer contribution to social accountability, and the work VSO were undertaking to develop this approach. This was raising several questions, including:

  • How politically aware are volunteers of the political economy of the context in which they are working?
  • What skills, capacities, mindsets and values do volunteers need for effective accountability work?
  • How can volunteers build linkages between volunteers across the ‘ecosystem’ to promote accountability and change? What are the barriers and drivers?
  • How transformational is the contribution from volunteers- are they taken seriously and how deep are the changes?
  • What is the political appetite for volunteer engagement around the ‘politics of exclusion and rights violations and what types of volunteers are most suited to address these issues?

There was a need to synthesise evidence and VSO were looking at developing a framework in evaluation. There were different patterns of change across different models amidst a recognition that volunteer typology is changing, and how VSO works as an organisation is also changing.

After the presentations, each of the tables discussed the contribution of volunteering to the achievement of the SDGs in the Global South, key opportunities and challenges for the developing of volunteering for development, and ways in which research, policy and practice may work better together to fulfil volunteering’s potential in the Global South. One of the points to emerge from the discussion was the need to challenge some of the assumptions that underpin volunteering, such as volunteering always being ‘a good thing’ or that volunteers make a ‘unique contribution’. More nuanced understandings and more rigorous research may be needed. 

Session 3: Home: Volunteering and Development in the UK and Global North

After lunch we shifted focus, to explore the link between volunteering and sustainable development in the UK. This time we started with four brief presentations, before opening out into a wider discussion.

Angela Ellis Paine, Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC), University of Birmingham

Angela discussed the false boundaries that exist between national and international volunteering, and the benefits that may come from overcoming some of our siloed ways of thinking and working. She highlighted some of the ways in which volunteering could be seen to be contributing to the implementation of the SDGs in the UK – both generally and against specific goals. She cautioned, however, against seeing volunteering as a panacea highlighting both the current scale of the challenges currently affecting the UK (e.g. growing inequalities) and the some of the current limits to volunteering (e.g. inequalities of access). 

Mattias Hjort, International Development Department, University of Birmingham

On behalf of a team of colleagues from the University of Birmingham, Mattias shared insights from some new research on the links between national and international volunteering. The research (literature review and Aid Attitudes Tracker survey) focused on motivations for and predictors of volunteering, both home and away. The results suggest that people who volunteer are not significantly different to those who don’t volunteer in terms of their socio-demographic background: income, gender and education have small to zero effects. The decision to volunteer appears to be one of values and attitudes more than resources or background. One unexpected and hard to explain result is that respondents who have a great deal of trust in charitable organisations are less likely to volunteer. They concluded that predictors that can be encouraged to increase volunteering for development include the belief that fighting poverty is worthwhile and that one can make a difference.

Jo Baker, International Service, City of York

Jo presented on the local collaboration that had taken place in the City of York, involving the City Council, academic institutions and the voluntary sector, where International Service had played a role given their familiarity with SDGs in international work. This had led to a greater understanding of how activities in York, and particularly volunteering, contributed to the SDGs and a submission had been made to DfID setting this out as part of the VNR process. Prior to this set of activities people simply hadn’t been thinking in terms of the SDGs.

It had become clear that until now no one in York had a full picture of volunteering in the city: there was a general lack of knowledge about what was happening.  Research had been commissioned from Sheffield University to provide new evidence, and a new city-wide volunteering strategy was developed.  The approach used the concept of “Cities of Service”, a concept developed in the USA, focusing on community led social action. Overall, more weighting had been given to the value of volunteering through the process, and a stronger connection had been made between the local and the global.

Shaun Delaney, National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)

Shaun shared reflections from his involvement in leading the process of working across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to draft the UK’s National Situational Analysis (NSA) on Volunteerism for the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. The process of drafting the submission had highlighted some gaps in the current approach to connect volunteering (practice, policy and research) to the SDGs in the UK, and the differences emerging between the four nations.

Following these four presentations, we moved into a plenary discussion of volunteering, development and the SDGs in the UK. The discussion was wide ranging, focusing on: the potential contribution of volunteering to the SGDs, the role of volunteering in holding government to account for its implementation of the SDGs, the current lack of joined up thinking regarding the SDGs in the UK, the limits to what can and should be expected of volunteering particularly in the current challenging environment.

Session 4: Volunteering and Development: Opportunities and Challenges for research, policy and practice

The last session of the day bought the discussions together, to focus on the opportunities and challenges for research, policy and practice in the field of volunteering and development – both home and away. This began with a presentation by Emma Morley from United Nations Volunteers (UNV), before moving on to reflections from a panel of practitioners, and then opening out into a group discussion. 

Emma Morley, UNV

Emma Morley provided an overview of the UNV processes related to the SDGs and the contribution of volunteering.  This revolved around the Plan of Action which would consider the sequential pathway of national situational analysis at member state level, which in turn would inform a regional consultation and then a global consultation.

124-member states sponsored a resolution on volunteerism (due to be taken up by the General Assembly in the near future).  Of the 46 Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) produced in 2018, 29 included reference to volunteering as a cross-cutting means of implementing the SDGs.  Some of these countries had focused on the way volunteers widened civic space.

In the overall delivery of the Plan of Action, Emma reviewed what evidence was already available and what was missing.  The latter list included: measurement; information that enabled policy choices to be made; technology; innovation; South-South co-operation.

In respect of research some questions were posed: what has been done? What data do we need to systematically leverage the potential of volunteering? Who does the research? How can we do it better?

Following Emma’s presentation, three panellists – Chris Reed (British Red Cross), Shaun Delaney (NCVO) and Cliff Allum (University of Birmingham) – offered reflections on the key themes to have emerged from the day, and potential future actions. Other members of the workshop then added their reflections. Key themes highlighted included: the importance of understanding how context shapes volunteering; issues associated with the language of ‘volunteering’, particularly in influencing what gets included/excluded; the importance of putting people and relationships at the centre of development strategies; how the SDGs may act as an important backdrop for volunteering and development, but are not the key focus; the need for great understanding of the unique contribution of volunteers, and to question some of the underlying assumptions.  

Day Two: Building Research Collaborations

The second (half-day) session was intended to offer a less structured space in which to explore possible areas for research collaborations and how they could be taken forward.

At the start of the day, participants offered their thoughts on the previous day and what this implied for research going forward.  This was a wide-ranging discussion which attempted to explore some of the conceptual challenges, e.g. the regularly used “shorthand” categories used in the “V4D” sector and research. In this discussion reference was made to the different kinds of challenges faced.

  • Conceptual Challenges related to action; relationships; social processes; and identities
  • Dialogue Challenges related to political choices; International volunteers; and volunteering for development
  • Holding to Account related to who deliver resources; volunteering as more than providing services to others; and social accountability and social action

In our discussions of V4D, are we discussing volunteering for sustainable development or as sustainable development?

To help participants understand the current research ‘map’, John Mohan, TSRC provided an outline of the situation of research in the UK in respect of volunteering.  He located some of the recent history in the UK and the role of volunteers, specifically mentioning “Big Society” and how voluntary action had been promoted in the context of cuts in governmental expenditure.  He discussed evidence on volunteering impact in terms of direct and latent aspects. Cliff Allum then provided an overview of the development of links between practitioners and researchers in the international arena, including the development of the Global Research Agenda. The latter had identified the following areas where research could contribute:

  • Theoretical understanding
  • Measurement
  • Enabling Environment
  • Enabling southern voices in the research process

To an extent, there was a shared understanding of the challenges of the use of terminology, such as volunteer, development, international, local which impacted on conceptual clarity as to what was the object of specific research interventions. 

The group attempted to review possible ways forward:

  • There are some big picture questions that emerged.  Specifically, where does V4D come from and what work does it do conceptually? Who uses V4D and how? How is V4D linked to resourcing and financing of volunteering? This offered scope for engagement with practitioners in developing effective concepts and understanding.
  • The lack of research on South-South approaches noted the previous day was reaffirmed
  • One area of interest concerned barriers to participation, noting the diversity of volunteering, issues of exclusion and inclusion and why some people were engaged in volunteering and why others did not find ways in.
  • There was also a sense that unpacking enabling environment to focus specific contexts in which volunteering took place might also prove a productive way forward to focus on research propositions.
  • Another approach could be to have an international comparison of the UK with other countries, perhaps with a sectoral focus, or with a focus on how different countries addressed the SDGs through volunteering.  In respect of impact, the question could be posed as ‘volunteering for what?’ which in a sectoral model could focus on models of working, good practice in volunteering, what worked and what could be different?

The group agreed to continue the conversations and potential collaborations through bilateral and multi-lateral discussions, as appropriate.

John wrapped up the event by thanking the group for coming; to Angela for leading on the event; and especial thanks to Ben for his participation as part of the university partnership.