23rd May 2012

Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham, Birmingham , United Kingdom

The agenda was packed, the room was full, the presentations were stimulating, and the discussion lively. Definitely a day conference worth attending.

With Pete Alcock in the chair, the first half of the day included two papers. Matthew Bennett presented findings from his PhD research which explored volunteering, religiosity and religious context. Matthew’s research is one of the first serious quantitative studies of the links between religion and volunteering in the UK. Drawing mainly on the British Social Attitudes Survey, Matthew tested six hypotheses and concluded, for example, that the likelihood of volunteering increases if a person is religious; that service attendance increases the likelihood of volunteering; and that the devoutness of a local authority is not a significant predictor of volunteering, but religious diversity within a local authority increases the likelihood of volunteering. The conclusions might not all be completely new to those involved in volunteering, but having such strong evidence to back up or indeed challenge previously held assumptions is new.

Rebecca Taylor and Malin Arvidson were next to the floor to present findings from TSRC’s Real Times, longitudinal qualitative research, on how charities are managing change in times of crisis. The presentation focused on organisational narratives – how staff are experiencing, articulating and making sense of the changing context within which they are working. While rarely talking about ‘crisis’, staff expressed their anxieties by talking about their fears, worries and sense of uncertainty often connected to specific issues they were currently facing. Alongside these stories of anxiety, however, were also those of opportunity and resilience. The sense we were left with was that change was something of a constant for voluntary organisations – something which causes stress and even anger for staff, but which can be viewed positively or more often is something which simply has to be lived with.

Before lunch, there was a short VSSN business meeting, within which a considerable number of upcoming seminars, conferences and workshops were highlighted.

Cathy Pharoah took the chair for the afternoon session, efficiently guiding us through three papers. Lynn Hancock was first up, presenting a paper co-authored with Louise Hardwick, on the big society and volunteering. Arguing that volunteering levels are low in low income communities (and high in rural communities), and that the most deprived areas which are most reliant on local authority funding are disproportionately affected by cuts, the suggestion was that big society discourses and policies are disguising or indeed reinforcing inequalities. The paper introduced the idea of ‘compulsion volunteering’, suggesting that certain people (e.g. women) are increasingly compelled to volunteer to counter social injustice. It brought to my mind a research respondent who once said to me: ‘this is not volunteering, this is desperation’…. I for one will watch out with interest for the research which tests out some of the exploratory ideas presented in this paper.

Katie Bruce and Pauline Leonard presented fascinating early findings from their ethnographic study of working lives within the third sector. With data from paid staff and volunteers at all levels within six case study organisations, the paper focused on different career trajectories – on movements into the sector, the role of volunteering in this, and issues of boundary crossing. A considerable variety of routes used by people to ‘get in’ to and ‘get on’ in third sector jobs were highlighted. Through discussion at the end it was suggested that the complexity of the picture in the voluntary sector may contrast with the rather more formal career hierarchy found in the public and private sectors.

Bravely taking the last slot of the afternoon, Jenny Harlock did a sterling job of keeping the audience’s attention, with a stimulating paper on the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state in public service delivery. Drawing on interview data from her PhD research with adult social care providers and commissioners in the UK, Jenny was able to highlight some of the anxieties, stress, tensions and dilemmas that voluntary organisations and their staff are facing in light of the changing nature of adult social care, the changing role of the voluntary sector in public service delivery, and the current context of resource scarcity. One of the issues highlighted was the increasing polarisation of the workforce, with a growing differentiation between paid staff and volunteer roles – although in some cases the difference was clearer on paper than it was in practice. The research also found that rather than reducing or withholding provision in the face of funding cuts and increasing demand, organisations were found to be ‘stretching’ provision.

All in all the five papers covered a lot of ground, although there were a number of common themes that emerged, including for example: complexity; challenge; change; tensions; dilemmas; assumptions; boundary crossing; the nature of volunteering; and the experience of working within the sector. Many thanks to all who organised, presented, discussed and generally helped to create such a thought-provoking day.