Monday, 3 October 2011

Pathways through Participation – what it means for volunteer managers

In September, NCVO published a report of the Pathways Through Participation project.  This lottery funded piece of work, undertaken in partnership with Involve and the Institutefor Volunteering Research, gained some sectorpress coverage for its finding that government encouragement “deters people from volunteering”.

However, look behind the perhaps obvious headline and there is much to be gleaned from the summary report that is useful to volunteer managers, although the focus is on many forms of participation not just volunteering. 

The researchers conclude that participation takes place when four elements are present: a personal motivation, a trigger, resources and opportunities.  Perhaps the most immediately relevant to volunteer managers is motivation.

The report highlights six motivations to participate: helping others, developing relationships, exercising values and beliefs, having influence, personal benefit and being part of something.  They then go on to expand on the social dynamic of participation, stating that:

A desire to make and/or embed social connections, meet new people and combat isolation or loneliness led many people to get involved in a collective activity. The human desire to be with others in a joint endeavour, and the strength and quality of the relationships between fellow participants that grow through belonging to a group, came through vividly in our research.”

This reinforces one of the headline findings of Volunteer Canada’s Bridging theGap report from earlier in the year.  People increasingly want to volunteer in groups, either a pre-existing group coming forward to volunteer, or to engage with others and form groups through volunteering.

As volunteer managers we need to provide opportunities for people do just that through volunteering with our organisations.  Indeed, the report also observes the potential for groups to help with volunteer retention, noting that “the relationships that are built in groups are a crucial sustaining factor in people’s participation”.

The researchers also highlight that “people’s participation is dynamic and constantly evolving  as of people’s motivations are complex and change over time, something Bridging the Gap also noted but many other studies of volunteer motivation fail to do. 

“Almost everyone we spoke to had experienced some degree of fluctuation in the levels of intensity and frequency of their involvement, depending on what was happening in their lives. Participation was characterised by ebbs and flows, starts and stops, a mix of one-offs, short- and long-term commitments…”

Often organisations make varying degrees of effort to understand a volunteer’s motivation when they first recruit them and then fail to re-assess this over time to see if motivations have altered and therefore whether the person’s volunteering needs to adapt accordingly. 

As Pathways Through Participation highlights, such complexities in motivation are “crucial to understanding motivations for participation” as “any attempt to encourage participation must take into account the differing and multiple motivations people have for becoming and staying involved” for we must provide “the environment, conditions and opportunities for an individual to translate their motivation into action”.

Equally significant is the finding that, apart from these factors of changing motivations, “a good quality participation experience was the single most important reason interviewees gave to explain their sustained participation”.  Additionally, “people participated in order to specifically achieve something”.

In other words, give volunteers roles that make a difference and a quality experience and you greatly enhance your ability to continue to engage people in giving you their time.

This validates the importance of volunteer managers investing time and effort into developing meaningful roles for volunteers.  As Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch put it, "The primary ‘problem’ in volunteer involvement right now does not lie in finding new volunteers, it lies in enabling those who are already involved to accomplish productive work."

Organisations have to offer opportunities that fit with people’s complex lives, meet the needs of organisation and/or client group/beneficiary and deliver a great experience, when that could mean different things to different people.  This isn’t science, it isn’t an A+B+C=D process driven approach with predictable outcomes.  It is more akin to alchemy with a complex interplay of frequently changing factors that must be juggled and balanced to achieve a one or more outcomes for all concerned.

When seen in this way perhaps the question is not whether organisations can afford a volunteer manager (as many all to readily ask when times get tough) but whether they can afford not to have a volunteer manager.

“Improving participation opportunities requires starting where people are and taking account of their concerns and interests, providing a range of opportunities and levels of involvement so people can feel comfortable with taking part, and using the personal approach to invite and welcome people in.”

In conclusion, my view is that Pathways Through Participation is telling is us as volunteer managers that we need to consider: how we can engage people in groups or in group work; how we are aware of and responding to changing motivations; and how we create and adapt opportunities for volunteers that given them a great experience.

Pathways Through Participation adds to a compelling body of research, anecdotal and experiential evidence that should be stimulating organisations and volunteer managers re-think their approach to engaging and keeping volunteers.

Please do feel free to share your views on the Pathways Through Participation report by leaving your comments below.

If you’d like to talk to Rob about how Rob Jackson Consulting Ltd can help you think through these issues in regard to your own organisation please do drop him a line.

[NB - The Pathways Through Participation team have produced their own summary of findings relating to volunteering].

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