Looking at Emotion and Feelings in Voluntary Sector Work by Mike Aiken

It simply isn’t true to say that all the best ideas in the voluntary sector start with a few people meeting in a busy café over a coffee and snack. That’s because you also need someone to jot down random ideas on a serviette! Then you need to type in a diary reminder for a Zoom call next week. And don’t forget to email and WhatsApp all the people and networks you’ve ever known who might be interested in the idea.

Well, that is pretty much the back story behind setting up three seminars – held between October 2020 and July 2021 – on the role of emotion and feelings in voluntary action. Our bold idea was to ‘open up the practitioner and academic gaze to the importance of understanding…the realm of feelings and emotion within the practice and research on the community, voluntary and co-operative sector.’ Call it interdisciplinary if you prefer. We certainly had quite a lot to scribble on our serviettes!

But what came out of this series? Certainly, voluntary sector work with refugees and migrants raised complex feelings for many. A researcher might face conflicts between their professional role and their compassion in certain fairly closed institutional settings as Joanne Vincent’s work suggested in our first seminar. In addition, volunteers that generously offered a space for a migrant in their own home might, as Pierre Montforte’s research indicated, also face complex emotional dilemmas.

The ‘workload’ involved in some volunteer activity – from search and rescue operations (highlighted by Craig Needham) to community work in sports clubs (identified by Chris Mills) and sewing clubs (researched by Beverley Gilbert) – can become onerous. But it sometimes involves little emotional support.

Within larger voluntary organisations, long hours of working or volunteering with little supervision can be hard to challenge in the face of the important cause (as Conor Twyford’s work suggested). Meanwhile, leadership issues remained important in Rachel McGrath’s analysis as well as the toolkits and organisational processes to support staff and volunteers discussed by Anne-Marie Greene.

Marilyn Taylor drew attention to emotions in community action and how notions of place and local sensibilities could be in conflict with different ‘rational’ knowledges held by, for example, city developers. Meanwhile Julian Manley, identified and analysed dilemmas within volunteering through the use of psychosocial approaches to the role of affect and vocation.

These three events – kick started by a small grant offered by VSSN – were organised by Vita Terry, Mike Aiken and Julian Manley with administrative support from Alina Belousova. With the outbreak of the Covid virus in March 2020, the whole series went on-line but still attracted over 80 attendees in total. These included researchers and practitioners from the UK, Ireland, mainland Europe, USA, Canada, New Zealand and beyond.

For those who weren’t able to take part in the live events, some videos and programme notes have been made available on the VSSN website. Do check them out here: https://www.vssn.org.uk/video-archive/emotion-and-feelings-in-voluntary-sector-work-seminars/].

There is clearly a lot more that we can learn from cross-disciplinary approaches involving voluntary sector work and the psychosocial realm of feelings and emotions. So we are hoping to follow up the seminars with publications that have emerged from this work. Watch this space! Meeting up to develop further collaborations between practitioners and researchers across these fields could also offer us important learning.

So, when you next go for that inspirational coffee in a busy cafe, don’t forget to carry a pen and find a serviette!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.