Blog: Volunteering - love, impact and change

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Sitting in on a recent RSA seminar about volunteering I wondered whether my favourite theoretical approach could offer some insight…

Overall, we lack strong conceptual frameworks for thinking about volunteering. tiny_Twitter Perhaps there is something about the very idea that makes us feel it is inappropriate to be too analytical; cold rationality is inimical to the warm emotions that stir voluntary efforts. The frameworks I have seen tend to be either binary continuums, for example ‘informal to formal’ or ‘occasional to intensive’, or simple classifications around criteria like the type of activity or type of beneficiary.

But these frameworks aren’t subtle or dynamic enough to help explore some of the tensions that emerge in any extended conversation of volunteering. Which is why the ‘three power’ theory (based on the work of Durkheim, Mary Douglas and the cultural theory school) might help tiny_Twitter To recap in brief:

There are four foundational ways of analysing the social world and of pursuing change: three active ways - the hierarchical (think authority, state, strategy, bureaucracy), the solidaristic (think belonging, charity, culture), the individualistic (think competition, acquisitiveness, risk and innovation) - and one which by its nature is less active, the fatalistic (think resignation, stoicism, passivity, indifference).

Each of the four ways has benign characteristics (respectively: leadership, values, ambition and stoicism) and malign (authoritarianism, tribalism, selfishness and apathy). The story each way of thinking tells about the world – the sources of its legitimacy - is in large part a critique of the other ways of thinking.

The three active ways - can also be seen as a way of solving problems, a source of social power. The best solutions to complex problems – of which we have more and more – is generally to combine the three sources. However, as each way represents an implicit critique/attack on the others, the solutions that combine the ways (‘clumsy solutions’) are always fragile. Clumsiness is hard to create and both competition between the adherents of each perspective and changes in the social environment are always threatening to upset any equilibrium.

The challenge of mobilising and balancing the three powers is a fruitful way of approaching the task of strategic management and effective policy making.

So, what has this got to do with volunteering? Listening to the RSA discussion last week, which featured about thirty commendable people involved in analysing, promoting and managing volunteering, I soon heard the three perspectives in play, and in tension.

Before elaborating, I should explain one other fruitful (although complicating) aspect of the theory; it is fractal. That is to say that each world view/power source exists at the level of a whole society – broadly the state being the organisational embodiment of hierarchy, the market of individualism and civil society (church, politics, third sector) of solidarity. But within each sector or organisation the three perspectives recur in a fractal reaching down ultimately to the voices in our own heads

As this implies, volunteering is a solidaristic phenomenon. But when we look inside the sector’s debates we see solidaristic, hierarchical and individualistic perspectives, possibilities and problems.
The hierarchical view of volunteering focuses on its efficacy, particular in relation to goals set by policy makers and managers. A good example of such a perspective is to be seen in Nestsa’s study of impact volunteering. Nesta is currently exploring how volunteering can make the greatest contribution to the NHS, focusing in detail on the best way to allocate a volunteering hour in a hospital.

From a hierarchical perspective this is important research, which seeks to address some of the sloppy thinking behind much voluntary activity and to ensure efforts aren’t frittered away. But even the idea of such research tends to raise the hackles of people looking from the other perspectives. From the solidaristic world view (the default cultural norm of the volunteering world) such an approach threatens the vital emotional well spring of voluntary effort: we aren’t motivated by efficiency but by a desire to contribute, anger at injustice, compassion for our fellow citizen.

The hierarchists want more top down management, the solidarists want more recognition of the affective quality of volunteering (by the way, none of us adopt any of these positions consistently in all areas of our lives - it all depends on context and our role).

In this debate, the individualistic perspective tends to champion volunteering most as a source of innovation. Whilst the hierarchical perspective asks how volunteering can be more efficient and the solidaristic how it can be better nurtured, the individualistic view asks how volunteering can be disruptive; empowering people to do and demand things differently and to generate new solutions to social problems. Individualists are less interested in structure or appreciation and more in access to investment or ways of scaling up new ideas.

As ‘innovation’ is now a buzzword to which we must all genuflect, the voluntary sector will tend to say it supports this individualistic view. But ultimately hierarchists want volunteering to add value to the existing system not disrupt it, while solidarists can find the individualistic emphasis on the need for change jarring or unrealistic.

A good ecology of volunteering in a place or sector will seek to mobilise all three perspectives/motivations/sources of power. It will prize and acknowledge the love that goes into volunteering, it will try to ensure that volunteers are used most effectively to generate social value and it will open up to the capacity of volunteering to reveal failings in current systems and to generate new (more responsive and relational) ways of solving problems.

Trying to create and maintain this ‘clumsy ecology’ requires policy makers, managers, volunteers and beneficiaries to be aware of the different frames and to see and manage each one’s desire to be dominant at the expense of the others. It’s not easy but seeing volunteering through this conceptual lens makes life more interesting and can enable the combined efforts of volunteers to make the world kinder, better, more dynamic - and just a little more likely to succeed.

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  • Really useful. Wonder how that might map onto (or best be projected by) a complex institution like the RSA? Or which of those ways the world thinks we're batting for. 

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