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Volunteering is often seen through an all too simple lens. If you were to ask someone to describe an example of ‘volunteering’, they might say helping to serve food at a homeless shelter, checking up on an elderly neighbour, or tending to a community garden. They are less likely to say doing the bookkeeping for a local charity, writing a business plan for a social enterprise or undertaking some desk-research for an NGO.

Yet it is arguably these kinds of activities that third sector organisations will need greatest help with over the coming years, not least because they are being enticed into taking on more sophisticated functions such as tendering for public service contracts.

The changing face of third sector operations will in turn require a transformation in the calibre of the volunteers we recruit. In short, we will need to get better at identifying and mobilising skilled individuals who are up to the challenge of undertaking more demanding tasks. This is in part what we have attempted to do with the RSA’s ‘ChangeMakers’ project. Using an innovative new method, we were able to identify some 240 ChangeMakers in Peterborough who are driving positive change – among them businessmen, housing officers, students, artists and social entrepreneurs – and are now in the process of bringing these individuals together as part of a new collaborative network which works to improve the city.

Although mobilising this group will prove something of a challenge, we are not starting from scratch – by definition, ChangeMakers are already highly active in their communities and have experience of applying their skills for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, the same cannot necessarily be said of most skilled individuals. Despite the fact that twice as many people with a degree volunteer compared to those without any qualifications, there are still many out there who we have been unable to galvanise into action and whose wealth of talents remain untapped.

One reasonable explanation for this is that these highly educated, experienced individuals have less time at their disposal. They are more likely to be in senior positions at work, meaning that even if they want to help out at a local charity or social enterprise they simply don’t have the time or energy to do so. Another reason is that they don’t recognise themselves as particularly skilled or talented. Or if they do, they fail to see how their abilities could be applied in such a way to support a third sector organisation. Judging from our experience with the ChangeMakers project, this is entirely plausible: many of the people we identified were genuinely surprised that they had been nominated as someone driving positive change.

Bring these and other explanations together and we can begin to paint a more detailed picture of the difficulties in recruiting and managing ‘elite’ volunteers. The big piece that is still missing, however, is an acknowledgement of the mental demands that accompany participation. We can ponder endlessly about whether people have the time, the skills or the knowledge to volunteer. But this debate will prove fruitless unless we understand that ‘participation is personal’, something which is ultimately tied up in the nature of our identities and how we see ourselves in relation to others.

Take an example. A high-flying graduate who works for a major consultancy firm has the necessary time and skills to help undertake an audit of a charity in their neighbourhood. On the face of it, there should be no barrier stopping this person from offering their services. But this would be to ignore the hidden mental demands that are associated with the task. For instance, as somebody who may be in a position of authority at work, they may feel some discomfort at being directed by a less senior person in a smaller organisation. It may also be that the culture of the third sector environment doesn’t go in tandem with the one they’re accustomed to in the private sphere. Likewise, they may have to work with individuals who they wouldn’t normally choose to associate with in their work or private lives (see our Beyond the Big Society report for a fuller explanation of this ‘hidden curriculum’).

What this means is that any aspiration to grow the numbers of skilled people offering their services as volunteers will have to be accompanied by a much more considered approach to identifying, recruiting and coordinating those individuals. It will need to be one that thinks not only about matching specific skills with need but also about linking people and organisations based on their like-mindedness and cultural similarities. The immediate costs may appear too large at first and the exercise overly complex, but in the long run the dividends will justify the time and expense. Indeed, it’s not a case of if we choose to reform the way we recruit and manage volunteers but rather when and how.


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