Considering the topic of the first ERNOP Science and Society Seminar, I cannot help noticing that the comparison of volunteers with renewable energy is already there for quite some time. Marian Harkin was a member of the European Parliament from 2004 – 2019. For all those years she was the ‘go to’ person in the EU institutions for matters related to volunteering. She would regularly call volunteers ‘Europe’s greatest source of renewable energy’. Inspired by her vision, in 2013 I launched the ‘Volunteers are Like Windmills’ concept. The principle was based on the idea that, like windmills, volunteers have different roles and come in all shapes and sizes (even unexpected ones – such as a windmill dance!). Furthermore, some are highly visible, and some are hidden away, but all are important. Like windmills, volunteers sometimes act alone, and sometimes in groups – they are loved by some and ‘hated’ by others! Volunteers need to be plugged and they need maintaining, just as windmills do. How well we do on providing this energy and maintenance to our volunteers will determine their impact and output, just as for windmills.
It’s about quantity and quality
There were an estimated 100 million volunteers in Europe according to figures from the European Year of Volunteering 2011. At that time, the European Commission declared the target of doubling the numbers of volunteers in Europe. However, that ambition does not necessarily translated into better protection for vulnerable people or increased contribution to sustainable development of voluntary organisations. Cuts in funding to volunteer-involving organisations and volunteer infrastructure organisations, such as volunteer centres, means that there is a reduced quality in the impact of volunteers. Volunteering cannot take place in a vacuum and the necessary care and attention to energy sources and maintenance for volunteers cannot be provided without adequate resources.
If foundations would engage in supporting volunteering it should take into account volunteer quality rather than only volunteer numbers or other KPIs based on external impact alone. Donating to organizations or initiatives involving volunteering and/or facilitating volunteering (for example online volunteer matching platforms) should look closely at indicators of quality and take this into consideration in their choices. How volunteers are being provided with energy and how they are being maintained, to ensure a sustainable impact at society level should be a guiding factor in decision making.
Remembering that volunteers are like windmills, potential donors should check if there is a framework for maintenance through an internal volunteer engagement policy. This should include frameworks for an inclusive approach to volunteering recruitment that can lead to citizen engagement representing the full diversity in the community without any barriers. Additionally, volunteer management processes and procedures, insurance (health, accident, liability etc.) and expenses claims provisions should also be in place. Whether the organisation or initiative commits resources to understanding the motivation and availability of their volunteers, including emerging trends related to employment patterns should also be taken into account. Also, they should check if this information is used to develop appropriate volunteer roles and tasks and if there are processes in place that enable volunteer managers to understand the Volunteer Cycle – Exploring, Developing, Sharing (for the organisation and the volunteer).
Potential donors should also look at how the energy of volunteers is maintained and therefore also if the power of their output can be maximised and sustained. Are there possibilities for the validation of skills and competencies acquired through volunteering for those that want it? Is there promotion of the impact made by volunteers – inside and outside the organisation, raising awareness of the value of the volunteer impact? Are new volunteers welcomed and all volunteers shown appreciation? Does the organisation provide (or seek externally from volunteer infrastructure and support organisations) training and support on providing quality volunteer opportunities and quality volunteer management? Is the organisation sufficiently informed about relevant legal frameworks / laws on volunteering and abides by them? These aspects should be given particular attention especially when concerning possible funding for virtual/ online volunteering matching platforms as these frameworks face unique challenges regarding the quality standards of volunteering opportunities offered.
The gap in data – still to be filled
If we see volunteers purely as a resource that means a service is delivered in a less expensive way than we fail in grasping the real value of volunteers. Volunteering is more than just a non-paid ‘paid job’. Volunteers bring added value – not because of a lack of salary but because of their empathy, expertise and sense of solidarity – a volunteer is there because they want to be. Volunteering plays an essential community role in building connections and greater understanding between people. Given the vast scope of volunteering fields, methodologies and target groups, understanding this complex role well enough in order to develop suitable and effective volunteering programmes policies and funding mechanisms is not easy. On a European scale it is even harder due to the lack of reliable and robust data on volunteering. We know very little on a pan-European level about who volunteers, why, when and where they volunteer and what is their impact. More regular and comparative data from different European countries would enable better evidence-based policy making and better evidence-based philanthropic giving. As we have seen in Belgium through the partnership between KBF, the national statistics authorities, the volunteer sector and academia, philanthropy can also play a crucial role in helping to obtain this data.
From the limited evidence available, we know that one of the main reasons people don’t volunteer is because they weren’t asked. We also know that lack of quality in the volunteering experience is a major reason why volunteers don’t return. We ask all donors to volunteering initiatives to think about quality and not only numbers. In this way, volunteer energy is more likely to be sustained. Funding volunteer support organisations as well as volunteer involving organisations is key to strengthening an ecosystem that enables sustainable impact on the society through volunteering.
Gabriella Civico is Director at the Centre for European Volunteering (CEV)