7. Concluding reflections and implications

This section summarises key learning from across the research and looks at what the findings might mean for practice and for decision makers.

These concluding reflections are designed to capture some of our key thoughts that have stood out across the research. We have focused on diversity and volunteering in this report, but we know that some of the issues we have highlighted are also present in other organisational contexts and that many organisations are currently developing their work around EDI more generally rather than looking at it solely in the context of volunteering.

Discussions about volunteering and diversity are not new and this is a complex area with wide variation between organisational realities. We have seen that organisations are at different stages on their individual journeys towards inclusion and diversity. Many organisations shared good practice examples and stories of their work on this journey and told us they still have a long way to go. Moreover, the events of this year have had a considerable impact on organisations and volunteering, some of which we may not fully understand for some time to come.

7.1 Key findings

This section looks at the key findings that have come out of the research for organisations to consider. We have grouped them thematically with some relating more to principles or values and others being more action-oriented.

Organisations view diversity in a number of different ways.

Organisations view diversity in relation to values, actions and outcomes. There are mixed levels of confidence related to how organisations can talk about diversity, especially in relation to volunteers. Viewing volunteer management through a service delivery model may reproduce inequalities in society and be biased towards white, middle-class, older volunteers.

Organisational culture matters just as much if not more than organisational processes and diversity strategies. If an organisation’s culture is not welcoming, engaging a diverse pool of volunteers will be much more challenging.

Most organisations understand that diversity cannot be viewed through a singular lens and understand the importance of intersectionality in relation to identity and volunteering.

If volunteering is central to an organisation’s values and culture then its approach to volunteering will prioritise the needs of volunteers alongside the needs of the organisation, leading to a more inclusive volunteering environment.

Organisations are at different stages of their diversity journey.

Organisations have been talking about the need for diversity and how to make volunteering more inclusive for a long time – but the data shows that there has been little significant change over time. Multiple data and research sources show that who volunteers has remained fairly consistent and a lack of diversity continues to be an issue for many organisations.

There is variation in terms of where organisations are at on this journey towards diversity, and many organisations that we spoke to have at least begun and recognise that there is still so much more to do. There is also variation in terms of how diversity is prioritised by organisations.

The events of 2020 have increased the appetite for embedding diversity within organisations and volunteering.

Organisations told us that diversity is now a higher priority, but challenges still exist related to resources and capacity and these have been exacerbated due to covid-19. However, there is serious momentum for change at present and organisations may want to capitalise on this.

Embedding diversity within volunteering may mean different things for organisations and could include for example, addressing bias or prejudice among current volunteers (in the current climate of support for anti-racism movements) or creating new or more flexible volunteer roles (given the current trend in favour of remote working). Rigid volunteer roles make it harder for people to be and stay involved and is likely to decrease diversity. How organisations might build on these trends will be interesting to watch in coming months.

The impact of covid-19 on volunteering is not fully known.

It is likely that the pandemic has had both a positive and negative effect on volunteering. Covid-19 has had a sudden impact on who volunteers, how and what kind of volunteering is taking place. The pandemic may have brought more people into volunteering, but it has likely driven others away. The crisis has inspired many people to volunteer but lockdown has meant that many older volunteers or those more likely to get the virus are shielding and are potentially more isolated.

However, there is more remote and digital forms of volunteering taking place, which is engaging volunteers differently, including new volunteers. The result may be a total re-think about volunteer roles in the future including the development of more flexible roles, which can only be a win for diversity. But it is impossible to know if volunteering will return to how it once was when the pandemic is over or whether covid-19 will have changed it forever.

How we talk about volunteering may need a re-think in order to be more inclusive.

This research has reminded us that how we define volunteering and talk about it matters – whether that be as activism, service to others or as a leisure pursuit – along with the level of formality associated with it. There are differences between groups in terms of how they describe their unpaid help and in who uses the term volunteering. These differing understandings of what volunteering means will ultimately include or exclude the people involved and have implications for organisations.

It’s about power and privilege.

Organisations who participated in our research spoke about the importance of being brave even if creating diversity within volunteering is challenging and there is backlash from some volunteers and potentially wider afield. We may be seeing a shift from the ‘business case’ for diversity into a moral case for diversity.

In order to promote inclusive volunteering and greater diversity, organisations may need to face uncomfortable realities internally in relation to attitudes and behaviours, shared values and beliefs. This work is not easy. Shifting culture and entrenched prejudice takes time and should be intentional. It may involve uncovering power dynamics and privilege that are not easily visible to all and may meet with resistance by some.

The structures of some charities can sometimes recreate power dynamics rooted in colonialism and paternalism between staff, volunteers and service users that can lead to discrimination and oppression. This can reinforce ‘otherness’ and disempowerment and is one reason for organisations to have a volunteer base that reflects its service users.

This research has highlighted an image and perception problem faced by some organisations related to volunteering. The outdated model of volunteering as ‘doing to’ is exclusionary and if we want volunteering to be more diverse, different models and perceptions of volunteering are needed.

The importance of building a culture of respect and celebration of difference.

We know from the Time Well Spent data that volunteer satisfaction is created in organisations when there is a culture of respect and trust combined with well-supported volunteers who are recognised for their contribution. Organisational culture can be both a barrier for diversity and a driver for change. Developing an asset-based approach to diversity may help to make volunteering more inclusive.

Being inclusive means changing practices to be more proactive in reaching out to those who have been left out, making it easier to volunteer, creating a more welcoming volunteer culture at all levels and increasing accessibility in a variety of ways.

Leadership matters but so do volunteer attitudes.

Volunteer environments should be safe, welcoming and brave spaces. For this to happen, volunteer managers and leaders need to have zero tolerance for racism, prejudice and discrimination within their volunteer programmes and among their volunteers, as well as a willingness and ability to have courageous conversations.

Where diversity is addressed at senior levels of an organisation, it is more likely to be embedded and prioritised. Our research also highlights that inequalities exist not only within volunteer pools, but also within governing bodies and senior management. Until there is diversity within these groups, it is unlikely that diversity will change within volunteering.

Vision and strategies are not enough.

Many organisations have statements and plans in place for diversity but lack real action that will create inclusion. This research has highlighted some of the most effective actions that organisations have taken to make volunteering more inclusive.

Lack of skills, data or knowledge about how to foster diversity and be more inclusive is no longer an acceptable justification for inaction.

When an organisation says they are ‘welcome and open to everyone’ but takes no positive action to create a diverse volunteering space, they are not being inclusive or open to all volunteers. Pro-active and targeted engagement, recruitment and support for volunteers enables diversity. Expecting a diverse pool of volunteers to happen without active effort is unrealistic.

Many organisations still do not have an accurate picture of who volunteers with them or why. Surprisingly few organisations survey their volunteers regularly and analyse this against their service users or community. If more organisations had better information about volunteers, it would also contribute to a clearer national picture about volunteering.

Recruitment is not the whole story.

Volunteer recruitment is only one aspect of diversity. Once a more diverse group of volunteers has started volunteering, it is important to provide appropriate support in order to create a good quality experience which impacts positively on retention. Also important is maintaining a welcoming environment and a positive volunteer culture where minority groups and disadvantaged people feel they belong.

Inequalities of resources and power means that some people are more likely to be excluded from certain activities.

Research on volunteering, and on participation more broadly has consistently highlighted this. We also know from the data that BAME, young people and people with disabilities are more likely to have less positive experiences of volunteering and this may be linked to the barriers described in this research, particularly with regards to volunteer culture and attitudes and the flexibility of roles.

Diversity varies by type of participation and wider context.

The mixed picture in relation to ethnicity highlights that participation varies greatly. Time Well Spent shows that there are common features in how people volunteer but the reality is more complex – volunteers combine different types of activity, cause, organisation, frequency and intensity of involvement, which reflects their own lifestyle and life stage, values and interests.

People’s lives and priorities change and, consequently, the ways they get involved may also change. This can also be influenced by the wider context – changes to participation during the covid-19 pandemic is a good example of the importance of context. Consequently, when we look at who is participating and not, while there are clear patterns, the range of factors that lead to this variability should not be ignored.

7.2 Key implications for practice

In the remainder of this section, we explore what organisations might consider when it comes to practice. It is aimed at people who work with volunteers on the ground as well as those who operate at a more strategic level.

In our main Time Well Spent report, we suggested a number of key features that make a quality experience for volunteers. It was also suggested that unequal access to volunteering is entrenching disadvantage and harming social mobility. This report also suggests that some organisations have a long way to go in creating inclusive volunteering environments.

Through our research, we have identified a number of key questions for organisations to reflect on and discuss in relation to their volunteer management and volunteers themselves.

Where in the journey towards inclusive volunteering is your organisation?

It is important to identify where you are now and where you would like to be. Make sure that your organisation builds a culture of respect and trust, supports volunteers and recognises their value and achievements. There are a number of elements within every organisation that contribute to creating a welcoming environment for volunteers. These are described in turn.

Are your organisational structures supporting diversity and inclusive volunteering?

  • Have you created an organisational or volunteering culture that values diversity and inclusion and is embedded at all levels?
  • Do you have leaders (staff and board) who support diversity efforts, prioritise action and value volunteering?
  • Do resources and capacity match agreed actions and priorities related to diversity and inclusive volunteering?

Which volunteering framework makes sense for your organisation?

It is important to decide who you want to engage with and what framework makes sense for your volunteers. You might want your volunteer base to better reflect service users, members or the community you are based in for example. Once decided, you will need the data to understand the demographics of your target group for comparison.

Does the way volunteering is organised support diversity?

  • Are there processes in place that are easy to engage with and that welcome all volunteers, create an inclusive environment and support volunteers to continue?
  • Have you targeted recruitment efforts at under-represented groups? Have you sought the help of your local volunteer centre to do this?
  • Do you encourage volunteers to be themselves and bring their lived experience to their role? Do you understand what matters to them and what their needs are?
  • Have you created flexible volunteer roles that can adapt to individual needs? Do you offer both online and offline volunteering opportunities that are accessible and well-supported?
  • Do you collect and analyse data and information about who volunteers in your organisation? Do you understand your current and potential volunteers and why volunteers leave?
  • Have you identified any barriers that may exist for potential and current volunteers and made progress to remove them?

Data might include looking at things like ethnicity, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or socio-economic status but it is also important to look at the intersectionality of identity and the needs of volunteers as well.

Have you considered how you are perceived by those external to the organisation and how this impacts on your volunteering diversity?

  • Have you thought about how your communications (including images) reflect and welcome a diversity of volunteers? Do you talk about volunteering and volunteers in a way that people can understand and engage with?
  • Are you engaging with communities or service users pro-actively so that you understand the needs of under-represented groups and local communities?

This is of course not a static or one-off exercise but rather an ongoing and long-term process for organisations to manage, requiring ongoing commitment. There is scope for organisations to be forward-looking and to recognise the need to build an inclusive organisation where volunteers from all walks of life feel they belong and are welcomed. There has never been a better time to make volunteering more inclusive.