Monday, 25 January 2016

Why how we think about volunteer diversity might need to change

Certain groups of people are under-represented in formal volunteering. We all know that right?

Quite rightly we are often called to open up our organisations to these under-represented groups. We are challenged to broaden the diversity of our volunteer teams and to tackle any practical barriers to the engagement of a wide pool of volunteers. Barriers like expenses so people aren’t financially disadvantaged through giving their time, or adaptations to premises or ways of working that can remove physical barriers to some people getting involved.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with this at all. Diversity is good. We should strive for it in our volunteer teams. But I worry that by doing so we may be inadvertently disregarding the great volunteer work people in these under-represented groups already do.

Take disabled people as an example. They are generally under-represented in formal, ‘mainstream’ volunteering. The associated assumption made all too often is that disabled people therefore do not volunteer. This is wrong. They do. A lot. They are involved in advocacy, self-help support networks, campaigns for disability rights and lots more. What they do flies under the radar of many people because it doesn’t sit comfortably with the (for want of a better phrase) establishment’s neat definitions of volunteering.

Consider another example. The UK’s Labour government of the early noughties had a goal of one million more people volunteering. That goal could have been met when roughly that number of people marched through London in 2003 to protest (as volunteers) against the imminent invasion of Iraq. But that wasn’t the kind of volunteering that the government wanted to see, so it didn’t get counted.

To me, this kind of discrimination is far more subtle, far more common and far more insidious than not providing ramps into a building or only making opportunities available at times that suit certain types of people.

Often without realising it we effectively say to these so called under-represented groups, “what you already do isn’t valid so come and do what we want you to do instead”.

So yes, let’s see what we can do to remove the very real barriers to diverse involvement of volunteers in our organisations. But let’s also take a moment to reflect and see if there are less obvious barriers created by our personal and / or organisational beliefs about volunteering. They are perhaps the barriers we need to challenge first.


  1. I often struggle with this feeling in regards to the teen portion of my volunteer program. Being Hispanic I would LOVE to say I have a diverse group of teens engaged but I have maybe 1 Hispanic teen enrolled because of the reasons you mentioned. Hispanic teens in our area are involved in their churches, are tutoring their siblings or cousins in the evenings, they're getting part-time jobs and they're working hard on their own academics. They give back by going with their grandparents to the store or helping their family members with errands, those things can't be counted but they're learning lessons just the same as if they were in my program. I'd still like to expand our base because people do look to see inclusion and diversity in large programs.

    1. I think it is about recognition of the work they do and 'counting' it, rather than trying get them to fit the model.
      We need to find what people need rather than telling them whats on offer. I am in no way assuming this of you, these are just my thoughts!