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Does Academic Research Really Matter?

Does Academic Research Really Matter?

e-Volunteerism editorial team member Rob Jackson recently asked colleagues about ideas for research that might benefit volunteering in the UK. This caused both of us to go back and re-read an article that Susan wrote in 1985 entitled “Research in Volunteerism: What Needs to Be Done” and published in the Journal of Voluntary Action Research. We invite you to look at it, too.  Our mutual conclusion is that, despite the passage of 27 years, much of what Susan listed in her article has yet to be adequately researched. 

Some things have improved since 1985, largely because nonprofit management and public administration have developed as independent departments and academic majors, forcing more faculty and students to write papers on related topics. If you search today for scholarly articles with the word “volunteer” in their titles, you would find hundreds of them. The trouble, however, is that the great majority of these articles are, bluntly, terrible.

Over and over, researchers approach volunteering as a mystery. What is it? Who does it? Why do they do it? These questions are valid, but new research ought to build on previous reports and articles. Unfortunately, it is rare for someone to acknowledge what others have already concluded (despite endless, boring lists of citations), totally excluding “practitioner literature” written for non-academics from consideration.

In this Points of View, we offer our thoughts on what research could be done that meets stringent scholarly standards while being genuinely helpful to those working every day with volunteers.   

This column is based on our long-held notion that academic researchers can, theoretically at least, be of use in the real world. As we’ll acknowledge later, there are some shining stars who already partner with practitioners, but this is still a touchy area. Susan remembers many heated debates with key university leaders about the evils of “setting a research agenda” for academics. Some consider it a holy right to study whatever they darn well please, with the only outside constraint being the ability to publish. Since we think that many editors of academic journals are also clueless as to what constitutes solid research on volunteerism, we would argue that practicality is not a criteria for publication! We urge journal readers to look for academics who do care whether their research has practical meaning and to work with them to create the studies that the volunteer management field truly wants and needs.

Which brings us to the valid observation that only a handful of practitioners seem interested in learning about how research might be useful to them. It’s a two-way street. Susan has even developed a grid, comparing and contrasting the perspectives of both groups and suggesting some mutual issues around which to open dialogue.  Take a look.

Town and Gown: Introducing Academics and Volunteer Management Practitioners to Each Other 

                                          © 2011

Leaders of Volunteers

Academics Studying Volunteering & Related Topics

Mutual Issues/Needs

Have tremendous experiential knowledge but very little hard data to prove their instincts.

Improving but still prevalent low status of philanthropic, nonprofit subjects – with volunteering low on even that list.  So little professional recognition for studying it.

Funding for better, but therefore more costly, studies.


Find that studies with limited scope are widely applied to any and all volunteering situations.

Volunteering too often narrowly defined as synonymous with the nonprofit or voluntary sector (or NGOs). 

Lack of universally accepted definitions of the word “volunteer” and all the activities it covers.  Therefore questionable research results and data that can’t be compared.

Rarely read anything scholarly and often unaware it exists.

Never look at anything written solely for practitioners – either don’t know it exists or discount it out of hand as not grounded in statistics. 

Opportunities for more cross-sector interaction:  journals, conferences, local meetings.

Eyes glaze over when reading articles with statistics and convoluted academic language.

Insistence on writing in academic tone and jargon, with no concern for non-scholar readers.

Greater acceptance of other forms of documentation, beyond statistics.  Seeking ways to publish two versions of studies for different audiences.

No access to researchers in the planning/doing stages and little after the data is published.

Resistance to anything that could be interpreted as a research “agenda.”

Again, more cross-sector contact, especially locally, connecting researchers as early as possible with program managers who can pose real-world questions…and provide larger, more varied cohorts of volunteers to study. 

Don’t always see how to apply studies that could be useful.

Too often draw their own conclusions as to applicability of their research, without reality checking with the field.

Have questions about volunteer engagement but do not know how to articulate these in a way that would interest scholars (or don’t realize academics are looking).

Narrow and stereotyped understanding of the scope of volunteering.  Leads to research that is focused on the most old-fashioned and changing roles and settings.

Research on Volunteerism: What Still Needs to Be Done

Probably the most over researched, underwhelming topic beloved of academics is volunteer motivation. Enough already! If you look at the Guidelines for Submission of Manuscripts to e-Volunteerism, you will see that we state:  “Few volunteer-centered subjects will be rejected outright. However, e-Volunteerism will not accept any articles on ‘Volunteer Motivation’ unless the submission truly introduces some recognizable innovation to this oft-discussed area.” 

We discussed this again while planning this very issue of the journal, when Research to Practice editor Laurie Mook selected the study to be reviewed. When we first read the word “motivation” in the preliminary description and began to hyperventilate, she assured us that this particular research was more focused on comparing original reasons for volunteering to what happened once the volunteer began to provide service. That sounded interesting.

In Susan’s 1985 article, she delves deeper into other truly interesting questions about what motivates volunteers in specific situations, rather than attempting to reach global conclusions about why people volunteer.  In a 2006 Hot Topic essay, "Wouldn't It Be Nice to Really Know….", Susan tackled the whole issue of inadequate volunteering “data,” offering some alternate questions to ask on public and private surveys of volunteers.

And here are a few of Steve’s ideas on “research he would really like to see:”

  • What do volunteer managers actually do? All of the existing studies are based on anecdotal information from surveys. This assumes that the respondents aren’t exaggerating their own skills/performance and actually understand what their answers mean, both of which are questionable. For example, surveys of volunteer managers report that they all do “volunteer recruitment.” Trainers and consultants will universally tell you that this is either a vast exaggeration or an outright lie; very few volunteer programs do any serious volunteer recruitment, and only a very few do it in a sophisticated way. We could actually benefit from an anthropological approach. Namely, go live with the tribe and take notes on their behavior, trying to determine what they are actually doing, how much they are doing and how well are they doing it.
  • What do “professional” volunteer managers do that isn’t done by other staff who end up managing volunteers?  And does this make any difference to the volunteers?
  • Are there things volunteers do better than paid staff?  We’re already voiced opinions about this in another Points of View but it would be a fascinating area for real research.  And if doing a big study on this topic is too much, could someone find an engaged and interested student who could do a compilation and analysis of the existing peripheral studies?
  • Why do some people develop into “super volunteers” when most do not?  This group is of critical importance because they provide the bulk of volunteer hours and also hold most of the key leadership roles. We know these super volunteers are diminishing, but we don’t really know why and we know nothing about how to develop the next generation of this group.
  • What factors are important to prospective volunteers as they go through the process of initiating contact, being interviewed and starting volunteer work?  We know there are some “critical moments” in this progression but we don’t really understand what prospective volunteers look for and how they judge the situation, two factors that are vitally important for improving how we integrate new volunteers into our organizations.
  • What do paid staff really think about involving volunteers? What lines of argument or evidence would be most effective in convincing paid staff that volunteers might be useful? If anyone wants to do “motivational” studies, this would be a nice place to start. We know that most staff voice “lip service” support for volunteers. But since this often isn’t reflected in their actions, we might also guess that they are thinking something else – so what is it?
  • How does volunteering work in some of the new online mega-volunteer activities that are now being organized?  Projects like the Cooperative Observer Program at the National Weather Service utilize thousands of volunteers who seem quite happy with what they are doing. How does that happen?  Will it continue to happen as these projects age, and will the volunteers continue to be motivated?  Will new spontaneous systems for management develop as the volunteers become an ongoing part of the system?
  • Is there actually anything to micro-volunteering or is it just another cute catchphrase with a micro shelf life?

Ending with Some Kudos for Academic Researchers

While we sometimes make fun of the academic community, we admit that some academics have done a really good job of both producing research and of actually relating it to the work done by practitioners. These folks also understand the difference between studying “nonprofit management” in general and “volunteering” issues in particular.

Here’s a brief list of excellent academic resources:

  • In the United Kingdom, the entire staff of the Institute for Volunteering Research, beginning with its original Director Justin Davis Smith (now top executive at Volunteering England), continuing with Angela Ellis Paine, and now under Nick Ockenden.  No other organization – nonprofit or educational – has such a long and distinguished track record of doing not only mega-research but also delving into the operations of individual volunteering systems. And no organization has done such a good job of maintaining high research standards even when dealing with political pressures. When it comes to evaluation studies of volunteer programs, the staff at the Institute for Volunteering Research is the cream of the crop. Moreover, they have always taken a global perspective, doing and disseminating international research.
  • In the United States, Jeffrey L. Brudney, Ph.D., of Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs, and Sarah Jane Rehnborg, Ph.D., Associate Director for Planning and Development with the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, University of Texas. Both have long and distinguished records of not only interacting with the practitioner community but of producing research based on a clear understanding of what is actually going on within the complex relationship between a volunteer and an agency. Which is not to say that Brudney doesn’t occasionally produce some amazingly convoluted equations to illustrate what he is talking about, but they are worth puzzling out. And Rehnborg has done incredible work in detailing the internal operations and dynamics of organizations that involve volunteers. We’re proud to note that both have contributed to this journal.
  • In Australia, just about everyone. Australia seems not to have been afflicted by the divide between academic and practitioners that besets other countries and it shows in the research being done there. It is interesting, relevant and always comes back to how it might be helpful in the real world. The Australian Journal on Volunteering was a remarkable example of how academic and practitioner material could not only co-exist but cross-benefit. Too bad it was eliminated from the Volunteer Australia budget without warning.

And, of course, we recognize the three academics who have volunteered their expertise as editors of our Research to Practice section: Brudney, already mentioned above; Steven Howlett, former Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Volunteering Research who moved to the UK’s Roehampton University as programme convenor for the Voluntary Action Management MSC; and Laurie Mook, Ph.D., research associate at the Lodestar Center for Nonprofit Innovation and Philanthropy, and Assistant Professor in the Nonprofit Leadership and Management program in the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University. They are representatives of scholars who give us hope.

What Can Be Done

How can we support academics who truly want to conduct volunteerism research that is helpful – and change the minds of those without the same vision?  Here are some suggestions for volunteer management practitioners:

  • Do more reading – and responding. From day one, e-Volunteerism has offered a Research to Practice article in every issue, identifying relevant studies and “translating” the findings into language easily understood by non-academics. If online access to the study is free, we always give the link. Just as any other author, scholars love to hear from readers. Have you ever given positive (or negative) feedback?  How else can researchers learn what the field wants?
  • Take a scholar to lunch. If you are near a university, find out whether any faculty member writes articles on nonprofits or public agencies, and get acquainted.  Invite him or her to speak at your local professional association of volunteer services managers – or to field questions about research from the members. The “hook” is that all your members are potential data pools, providing access to groups of volunteers to study.
  • If you have a topic that you would like to investigate for your agency or community, recruit a faculty member or graduate student to partner with you and do research.  Set ground rules that build on both your areas of expertise. Explain your questions and how you want to use the data to guide your daily work, while faculty members propose methodology and assure the study is defensible. Review the fact that researchers can publish academic versions of the study for their professional needs, but that you get to use the same findings in whatever practical ways that make sense to you – including simplifying the language and republishing it in a practitioner-focused journal (like e-Volunteerism). In both cases, of course, you give each other appropriate credit.

Your Turn

This Points of View essay will be available at no cost to any e-Volunteerism site visitor, as an incentive to encourage exploration of the entire journal, share its contents and publicize it in scholarly circles. Feel free to create a PDF version of this article (see the button at the top left of this page, above the article title) and send it directly to any researchers you know. Give it to members of your professional association and make it a topic of discussion at an upcoming meeting.

Also, please use the comments form below to respond to this article publicly. What do you think?  What research do you want to see?

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