What we talk about when we talk about Volunteering

Cross-posted at https://medium.com/@paulcurrion/what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-volunteering-fad393fa6ec0.

Last November I was asked to speak at the Statutory Meetings of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Antalya. As well as being part of two workshop panels – on innovative finance, and technological change – and having some fascinating discussions with the IFRC Global Innovation Team, I spoke in front of the General Assembly, which was quite the experience. The IFRC has very… shall we say, “specific” protocols for its meetings.

Although the IFRC faces the same challenges as other humanitarian organisations, it has a few that are unique; for example, the movement relies heavily on volunteers, it’s very difficult to count the number of those volunteers, and in recent years volunteer numbers have fallen at an alarming rate. The Future of Volunteering occupied an entire session at the General Assembly, although the discussion actually began with the 2015 Global Review of Volunteering (a fascinating report, go read it).

The bad news of declining volunteers is partly a change in the way in which those volunteer numbers are counted, particular in some of the bigger National Societies – i.e. there has been quite a lot of overcounting in the past. The good news is that many National Societies are taking steps to engage potential and existing volunteers in their countries, although my feeling was that a lot of the approaches that I heard at the General Assembly will not be enough to reverse the decline.

That’s because more accurate data collection of volunteer numbers is not the only reason why those numbers are down. There are global trends affecting volunteering more widely, and the IFRC needs a coherent strategy at the international level to address those trends, as well as a strategy for each National Society to address their specific needs. I used my brief time on stage to outline three big trends – separate but related – and tried to bring them together in a useful narrative for delegates.

1. The Implosion of Trust

The Problem

It’s very easy to lose trust – as the American Red Cross found out after their Haiti response was condemned for its perceived ineffectiveness – and very hard to build it again. Although NGOs continue to enjoy relatively high levels of trust compared to other institutions, the Edelman Trust Barometer for 2017 showed all 4 major institutions – government, media, business and NGOs – consistently losing trust. NGOs – and I think we can include RC National Societies in that category, since that’s how the public views them – were trusted by 53% of Edelman respondents, which was down 10 percentage points on the previous survey. This type of institutional trust isn’t really about trust, but about narrative; the distance between how an organisation presents itself and how the public perceive it. That distance is growing at least partly because humanitarian organisations have lost control of their narratives, which is at least partly because the internet has created opportunities for competing narratives.

The Solution

As the Edelman Trust Barometer makes clear, this loss of trust is systemic; for the first time since Edelman began in 2012, the majority of respondents lacked trust in the system to serve their interests. A lot of factors have contributed to this, but there can only be one solution to diminished trust: the model of volunteer engagement needs to change, from top-down hierarchies which create distance between management and volunteers, to flatter network structures that enable more meaningful volunteer participation. Given the high levels of support that many National Societies have enjoyed historically, they are ideally positioned to play a key role in rebuilding trust, both within their own countries and for the Movement more widely. This will be painful, though: it isn’t just about management restructuring, but about redistributing power as appropriate within each National Society, which will be difficult for many members of senior management.

2. The Decline in Volunteerism

The Problem

The bad news: IFRC volunteer numbers are down. The good news: everybody else’s volunteers numbers are down as well. Well, maybe not everybody’s – my numbers are from anglophone countries, which show us that civic engagement is down from 29% to 24% in the US over the last 10 years, while volunteering in the UK is down from 29% to 26% over the last 5 – but I’m going to extrapolate and suggest that the decline in volunteering is a global trend. Nobody fully understands why, and obviously every country has a unique situation, but it’s probably some combination of the following:

  • it’s related to the loss of trust discussed above, with people losing faith in the capacity of NGOs to effect meaningful change, and therefore choosing to put their time somewhere else;

  • it may be due to “financial stress” following the 2008-9 financial crisis, i.e. people are too busy surviving to spend time volunteering – although this is not clear from the available evidence;

  • there may be a “generation gap”, in the sense that young people tend to volunteer less than older people, and that gap may be increasing – but I’m not entirely convinced by this;

  • it seems more likely that – for younger people, at least – we may not have a clear enough “ask”, i.e. we aren’t putting forward opportunities that adds value to their lives or to others;

  • our understanding of volunteering may be changing – as our understanding of so many things is changing – with the volunteer impulse finding other outlets in the network society.

The Solution

Regardless of the causes of this decline, I predict it will continue to be a slow and steady slope downwards – unless we can find a way to revive volunteerism in the network society. We need to lower barriers to entry for volunteers, making it a more flexible relationship that they can enter into more easily, while accepting that this will also make it easier for them to leave the relationship. We need to engage people on their own terms, giving them more autonomy to shape their volunteering path within the organisation, which can enable us to build long term relationships which can change over time – sometimes more intensive, sometimes less. We need to be authentic rather than polished, using social media for genuine engagement, not just for branding and fundraising; and using the right platforms for the right audiences (remember: facebook is for grandma now). Yet online is not enough, and can even have a distorting effect on the dynamic between organisations and their volunteers; face-to-face interaction remains the bedrock of volunteering.

3. The Rise of Self-organisation

The Problem

One of the reasons why we might have less volunteers is because alternative outlets for volunteering are emerging, enabled by network technologies. I was a volunteer in Serbia in 2015-16 during the migrant crisis, and – having worked for humanitarian NGOs most of my life – it was an eye-opening experience to see an emergency response from the other side; as local responder rather than international staff. Whether they were right or not is not important: the point is that these volunteer groups had lost patience with traditional humanitarian action, and were taking their own action – 180 such groups formed between 2015 and 2016, and younger volunteers in particular were drawn to them.

The Solution

We shouldn’t see this as a problem to be “solved”. The spirit of volunteering is alive and well in these informal groups, and we should welcome their appearance. The problem is that our “traditional” aid organisations, such as National Societies, aren’t well-equipped to work alongside these groups, to coordinate our work with theirs more effectively. However National Societies occupy a curious space – local in their basic nature, but representative of a broader international movement – and might be able to play a role that bridges the two, if they can shift their structures to accommodate that role. This is critical, because we will see more of these “networked responses” emerging in the future, and we will need to engage with them – and eventually to question the distinction between “us” and “them”.

4. The Stories We Tell

The transnational volunteer movement was facilitated by freedom of movement within the European Union. This is a factor that isn’t present in most of the rest of the world and, if presents trends towards re-establishing border controls continue, might not be present in the EU in future. However the populist tactic of putting up fences is partly a response to the increased globalisation not just of trade, but also of activism. If our younger volunteers have this expectation of working across borders, what does that mean for National Societies?

Strengthening regional networks could be a good place to start, but while these types of alliances can be very powerful at a strategic level, they don’t necessarily mean much to volunteers working on the ground. The increase in globalisation combined with the spread of the internet has created the network society, in which increased personal connectivity changes the dynamics within entire organisations. Network technologies like social media don’t just change the way in which we relate to our public, but reshape how our entire organisations operate.

That change in management needs to be driven by something other than panic about declining volunteer numbers, however. It needs to be driven by the desire to a) rebuild trust and b) offer value to volunteers, which in turn requires us to have a conversation about what “trust” and “value” look like in the network society. 2017 was the year in which “fake news” became a common phrase, showing how much of a struggle we face when our trust in the media is weaponised against us, but the existence of “fake news” requires that there is genuine news to begin with.

That connection to the genuine is what we can offer people. We should not think of it in terms of regaining control over the narrative, but of constructively including others in that narrative. We have to be more aware that “What we say” does not always match “What we do”, and sometimes neither of them match “How we are perceived”. Knitting these three things together is the only way to be truly authentic in the network society. It is no easy task, but it starts with a single simple question: What is the story the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement needs to tell the world?

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