4 Oct 2016

Preliminary research suggests that whilst many Third Sector organisations are keen to embrace a digital future, there are some challenges that need to be faced.

                                          Volunteer Experience in the Digital Age 1.

The research*,funded by the Open University, found that Third Sector organisations are increasingly proficient in their use of digital media for brand awareness, campaigning and advocacy, fundraising and for recruiting volunteers. There is potential for using such media more effectively in supporting volunteer activities and engagement, after the recruitment stage.

Researchers found that the presence of an enthusiastic digital advocate made a real difference to the take up of new technologies and practices.  A further critical success factor was the extent to which the use of digital media was tailored to the organisations goals.

Applications like Facebook can make volunteers more visible in the organisation and create a sense of belonging, despite geographical distance. Digital communication can allow co-ordination of a widely dispersed volunteer team, and hence wider coverage of services. It allows volunteers to make their contribution, in client support for example, or involvement in decision making, even if they live in remote areas.

Volunteer Experience in the Digital Age 2

Through interactive social media, organisation can better understand what volunteers are saying and feeling about their experiences. Not only useful for its own sake, this can provide a valuable way to demonstrate the impact of volunteering, to funders  and the general public.

Amongst the main concerns expressed in interviews was how an organisation should respond if some kind of social media crisis were to arise, such as volunteers making unhelpful comments online which are picked up in national media. There are clearly issues of boundary management between personal and professional lives, which are relevant to both staff and volunteers.

Organisations generally value the relationships they build up with volunteers and would not want to see this replaced by a more impersonal, purely digital form of engagement, 'clicktivism'.

The main priorities for the future, the researchers conclude, would be:

  • Rethinking how volunteering roles can develop and become more flexible
  • Using digital technologies to foster active engagement of the long term
  • Finding the right balance between greater volunteer autonomy and maintaining the organisations strategic direction

The research is planned to continue and we can look forward to further reports on their findings.

Volunteer Experience in the Digital Age 3

Meanwhile, WCVA is working with Digital communities Wales to promote and develop digital volunteering in Wales.  Volunteers are being recruited and trained to help others to get online, and organisations are being supported in developing their use of digital technologies in new and effective ways. More information is available from Geoff.jones@wales.coop.org.uk or at digitalcommunitieswales.co.uk

Pritchard, K, Mumford, C, Symon, G and Hine C (2016). Volunteering experience in the Digital Age: current issues and future priorities.  A summary report can be read here