VSO volunteer Rea Torres talks to ICS team leader Torom Justus and Nadja Attianeze Barreto SAP Marcomms volunteer at Buhimba Vocational Training College.
© Georgie Scott/VSO

Volunteering together: Do we really know how it works?

VSO’s collaboration with the research team from Northumbria University sets out to interrogate how a blend of different types of volunteering approaches might create an impact. The team outlines the gaps in our knowledge this research aims to fill.

The theme of this year’s International Volunteer Day is “Together We Can Through Volunteering”. This places relationships centre stage and celebrates volunteering as a way of working collaboratively with others towards shared goals. ‘Volunteering together’ also hints at a global community of volunteers – and a transnational togetherness that comes from a shared engagement in volunteering.

This sense of togetherness feels all the more important in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. Volunteers around the world have gained widespread recognition for working together to support themselves and their communities, and connecting people during periods of isolation.

Gaps in the research

Given this focus on relationships and togetherness, you would think this would be the best-understood aspect of volunteering. Oddly, this is not the case. Much of the existing research on volunteering focuses on experiences of individual volunteers or particular types of volunteering. The relationships are often missing. This can be seen, for example, in the proliferation of research about short term global North, gap year volunteers and their experiences.

More recently, research has started to explore the experiences of host organisations and to analyse the partnerships that international volunteering can create. However, too often, the people with whom international volunteers work in the field are absent from such research, with relatively limited research focusing on volunteers from the Global South – whether volunteering locally in their own communities, nationally, or internationally.

So why are Global South volunteers so often missing from the research? And why is the focus on volunteering relationships missing?

One reason is that volunteering – in both the South and North – is often seen as a form of cheap service delivery. This inevitably places the focus on volunteers’ low-cost labour and individual motivations, rather than the relationships between different volunteers arising in the field.

Another reason is that in-built colonial legacies often continue to shape development research – the focus on international volunteers from the Global North reflects a focus on what the Global North can do for – not with – the Global South.

Broadening perspectives

Research thus still rarely addresses how different kinds of volunteers work together. The Valuing Volunteering research (2015) made important steps towards developing an understanding of the importance of relationships in volunteering.

“Volunteering Together: Blending knowledge and skills for development” is a new research project by VSO and the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University. It aims to further address some of the gaps, and to take “volunteering together” seriously. Recognising that volunteering rarely takes place in the individual way that is often represented, this research starts with a focus on the “together” rather than the volunteer.

This means we are interested in how teams of different volunteer modalities – community, national, international and so on – work together to contribute to the achievement of the SDGs. Most recently, as the volunteering and development context has changed, VSO has seen changes in its volunteering models, moving from a more traditional “service-delivery” paradigm, to an emphasis on volunteers working in mixed teams. VSO refers to this as “blended volunteering”.

Our research aims to understand how different combinations of volunteers may work in different sorts of ways, what kinds of impacts and outputs this produces, and for whom.

We will explore the ways volunteer teams are considered in the design and implementation of programmes and how they can best be supported to work well together. We will also look to understand how teams are established formally, as well as how they can sometimes come together by coincidence and serendipitously achieve great things through working with partners and VSO staff.

How best to live up to the goal of ‘Volunteering, Together’?

Relationships between different types of volunteers do not exist in a vacuum. Historical inequalities between Global South and North can mean that not all volunteers are valued equally. This suggests a need to work hard to make the “blends” work. Our research will contribute to understanding these relationships in the everyday practice of VSO programmes.

This important focus on how volunteers work together with other volunteers is not the only “together” dimension of our research – it is a collaboration between VSO as a global development organisation, various country offices, Northumbria University’s Centre for International Development and in-country researchers. Blended working and togetherness thus do not only represent the envisaged outputs of this research, but also the pathways we take to deliver them.

Moving away from the assumption of academics as “experts” who provide answers, we adopt a participatory approach of co-constructing the questions to ask and research methods to use. Working together in this way ensures the research will reflect the lived experiences of the actors and communities it claims to understand and support.

Through working in partnership, we hope to learn what kinds of togetherness contribute to volunteers making the most effective, meaningful and long-term contributions to development.

More information

If you’re interested in finding out more about the “Volunteering Together: Blending knowledge and skills for development” action research project, new articles and documentation will appear on the VSO website and Northumbria University’s in due course. The project is aiming to complete mid-summer 2021.

In the meantime, do follow the members of the research team for updates:

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