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Does the Current Crisis in Trust Sound the Death Knell for Formal Volunteering?

Does the Current Crisis in Trust Sound the Death Knell for Formal Volunteering?

Crisis in Chinese

As we alluded to in our last Points of View, this modern world seems to be beset with crisis: the global COVID-19 pandemic crisis. . .an inflationary cost-of-living crisis. . .the crisis in Ukraine. . .a continuing migrant and refugee crisis after years of war in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and too many other countries. . .climate crisis that affects the whole planet.

Another crisis we face is one of trust in our institutions. At the very moment in history that we need institutions to act for the common good, fewer of us trust them. This creates a crossroads in society with declining trust in institutions, how change is being created, and the place of formal volunteering within society shifting in new and unprecedented ways.

A recent OECD report unsurprisingly found that “public perceptions of government integrity is an issue. Slightly less than half of respondents, on average across countries, think that a high-level political official would grant a political favour in exchange for the offer of a well-paid private sector job.”

This cynicism in governments affects volunteerism because, as a pillar of democratic society, volunteering is impacted when trust in other institutions goes up or down.

Additionally, the report found that socioeconomic inequalities negatively influence trust. That perceptions of “a lack of voice in policymaking, and the sense that political elites are captive to undue influence” was especially high in respondents identifying as youth, women, those in low-income brackets, those with less education, and people who are financially insecure. Ironically, when we look at the typical profile of volunteers, we have known for some time that formal volunteering often tends to exclude many of those same people in our communities (with the possible exception of women).

Could lack of trust in our institutions be not only a cause but also an effect of lack of formal volunteering by these groups?

Comparing Disruptions

Think, for a moment, about the many recent public upheavals, including movements, uprisings and more (think MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion and others). They have all been centered on those with less power disrupting those who have large amounts of institutional power. This is rarely seen with formal volunteering but is seen more informal, community and cause-driven, efforts that go by different names like activism, direct action, mutual-aid and others. But they all are, at the root, volunteering.

This ‘disruption’ approach to change hinges on creating new forms of organizing and connecting, not in joining existing ones. Formal volunteering, defined as volunteerism through established organizations, can be seen as part of the existing infrastructure of society and its power system—something to be railed against, not embraced. So where does that leave the future of formal volunteering?

The Future of Formal Volunteering?

As it currently stands, formal volunteering seems to be limping along. Many in our profession report challenges in recruiting and retaining volunteers. Many (but not all) report low rates of return from volunteers who were active before the COVID-19 pandemic. For how long can we continue to stumble forward without change?

During the pandemic, we saw neighbours helping neighbours and people finding ways to connect online informally versus through existing channels. Coupled with years of lack of investment into long-held connectors like local Volunteer Centres (many of which are being actively defunded as we speak), people have found new ways of supporting causes and movements without formal actors, including paid Volunteer Engagement professionals.

In his excellent book, Citizens, Jon Alexander challenges readers to step out of the consumer mindsets that govern our daily lives and drive our institutions—including many nonprofits—and embrace our power as citizens, as agents of change. As he writes:

I believe in the power of the amateur to do something professionals won't or can't do, or plainly, just haven't done. I believe the novice can see things that the experts miss, and do things that the business-minded don't properly value. I also believe that ordinary people can develop uncommon insights and act on them because they have not been taught the 'right' way to see things. It is a crazy and idealistic but ultimately democratic idea to believe that we can all con-tribute, and that art and innovation come from unexpected people and places.

We must, therefore, seriously ask this question amongst ourselves and the entire social-impact sector: “Do people need an organization to change the world anymore?” If not, where does that leave the work and role of Leaders of Volunteer Engagement?

These may seem like existential questions for policy wonks, thought leaders and sector gurus. But they are vital to our roles and our organisations in their day-to-day work as well. We will be doing a huge disservice to our missions and the people we serve if we do not recognise and adapt to the change that is happening around us, and that which is coming down the line in the not-too-distant future.

Concluding on a Positive Note

To end on a more positive note, it is worth recalling the words of the late John F. Kennedy:

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”

In all the gloom we face globally, and all the challenges we face as Volunteer Engagement professionals, we can still find conditions and ingredients for change, for new ideas and innovations. That latent potential for positive change is something we find exciting, and something that lies within us all. Your insight, your idea, your new approach could be one that transforms our sector and our profession.

So, we want to hear your thoughts on the future of formal volunteering. What do you think lies ahead? What dangers do we face and what opportunities lie ahead? What factors – seen and unseen – will shape it now and into the future? What are you doing right now to adapt?

Let us know your thoughts and let’s get this important conversation started.

To add or view comments

Fri, 07/14/2023

No, formal volunteering isn't going away. But long-term, time-intensive roles for volunteers are. Finding a core group of volunteers who will show up once or twice a week, every week, for years and years - that's going away for most organizations. There's just too much competition for time, too little trust in nonprofits (and a lot of that is OUR fault), and too little flexible income - Generation X and those younger than such are going to have to work for pay well into their 70s. 

No one wants to come each week, or even twice a month, to the thrift shop that supports a well-known nonprofit where I'm working now, to help. Board membership? YUCK! But I can't keep up with all the volunteer applicants for one-time gigs or skill-based assignments: photographers, drone operators, helping to clean up the yard of an elderly homeowner this Saturday at 9, etc. Volunteers come out in DROVES if I get the recruitment messages up in time. 

And to be honest, I'm tired of all the "look how well informal volunteering worked in the pandemic!" For whom? Some people got some feel good moments - some nice moments. Just like after disasters. Good stuff, love the stories. But it wasn't sustained, it wasn't sustainable, and we still needed institutions to get people through it all. Plus, have you seen the stories where people were ripped off by people they thought were there to help, those informal "volunteers" who, in fact, were there to steal from people? 

For too long, leaders of volunteers have shirked away from noting all of the financial investment necessary for quality, sustainable volunteer engagement - even when it's one-time, just-show-up stuff. COVID took a slow growing trend and sped it up significantly. We'll have another International Volunteer Day with lots of nice slogans - but we still won't assert ourselves at our own organizations, at nonprofit conferences NOT primarily focused on volunteerism, or at the legislative level. We won't confront funders. We won't confront all the people launching volunteer recruitment platform after platform, saying, "This is NOT what we need..."