The Future of Volunteering?
Some voluntary organisations have recently argued that there is a financial imperative to embrace new ways of volunteering. It is true that many Museums, assuming they receive any regular funding at all, are seeing cuts to their funding. If you presume that volunteers only create economic value, you could argue that volunteers may be a way to “save you money”. At Chiltern Open Air Museum we engage volunteers to “add value” to the Museum experience. This draws on the argument that volunteers produce value that is not simply economic; they produce private and social value (less tangible benefits for themselves, the organisation and society more widely). When volunteering focuses on the additional benefits of volunteering, rather than seeing it as a means to reduce costs, we make best use of volunteers’ enthusiasm, skills and knowledge.
One of these news ways of volunteering is microvolunteering, defined by Institute for Volunteering Research as “bite-size volunteering with no commitment to repeat and with minimum formality, involving short and specific actions that are quick to start and complete.” Although some organisations argue that there are clear benefits to microvolunteering, I believe that it has some critical flaws. It is suggested that the short duration and repetitive nature of microvolunteering allows organisations to target the demographics missing from their volunteer base, for example allowing parents with limited free time to volunteer. Unfortunately, this assumes that volunteering is the best use of time for those people who don’t currently volunteer. With Museums trialing new engagement strategies (see for example the Natural History Museum, who are advertising “visiteering” – a portmanteau of “visiting” and “volunteering”), I believe that they are eroding the foundations of both those activities.
The concept of “gamification” also emerges in microvolunteering: the idea that engagement can be encouraged by applying game design techniques. For example the Natural History Museum advertises: “You will be set a challenge relating to the collections”. This builds on the trend for phrasing activities as competitions, and emphasising the instant gratification that occurs with the successful completion of the “challenge”. By phrasing volunteering as “a game” or “a challenge” we are excluding those volunteers whose motivations are not aligned with this way of thinking, like those who are volunteering for social reasons or out of a sense of charity. At Chiltern Open Air Museum, we have found that value is created by consulting and working with volunteers and integrating them into a community.
It is argued that the “many hands make light work” principle applies: is it better for 100 people to give 5 minutes of their time, or for one person to volunteer for a day? When volunteering focuses on longer term aims, the relationship between the volunteer and the organisation is strengthened, and the volunteer is enabled to develop skills which cannot be cultivated when the focus is short term. While the economic value of the two situations above might be roughly equivalent, I would argue that the private and social value are much higher when the length of volunteering is increased: expertise and confidence take time to grow.
We need to become advocates of volunteering best practice before people’s expectation of volunteering is significantly altered by this trend towards microvolunteering and gamification. If we allow people to see volunteering as bite-size, informal and challenging, this does not bode well for the time when the “missing demographics” become our “core demographic”. We must ensure that volunteering opportunities have value and that the experience is meaningful.
Visitor Services Team Leader