Exploring the role of volunteering in community business

By Rob Macmillan, Chris Damm, Jon Dean, Angela Ellis Paine and Catherine Harris

Volunteers’ week is a timely opportunity to remember just how significant volunteering is in community business, as well as everywhere else. There are six times as many volunteers involved in community businesses as staff, estimated at over 200,000 people. Behind the numbers, though, volunteering has perhaps even more everyday significance. Many community businesses wouldn’t be able to operate without them – they provide many services and organise many events and activities, but as committee members they also oversee the business, and some will have been involved from the beginning.

Trying to figure out what volunteering means in different ways in a community business context is the focus of research we’ve been undertaking for Power to Change. The study aims to dig a little deeper to understand how volunteering is thought about, organised, and managed in community businesses, and what those different approaches mean for volunteers. Sometimes volunteers are deeply engaged in all aspects of the community business; involved as members in how things are run. But in other circumstances they may be a bit more marginal or treated more like staff but without being paid. How does this make a difference to how volunteers experience their role? And does it make a difference that the organisation is working commercially, with larger community businesses that rely more on trading involving volunteers in a way that may be distinct from less commercial organisations?

To explore these issues, we’ve been working closely (or at least, as closely as we can over Zoom!) over the last few months with eight different community businesses from all across England to ask them what volunteering means for the organisation and for individual volunteers. They include a community pub, a credit union, a community library, a co-operative bookshop, and a community hub, and we’ve spoken to volunteers, volunteering coordinators, paid staff, trustees, and people at all levels of the community business. Some organisations are larger and some smaller; some are new community businesses and others are well established. Some rely completely on the contributions of volunteers, and others only occasionally. We wanted to hear the rich stories of how volunteering works in practice in these diverse organisations and help us think about the role of volunteering in community business.

With all these stories and different perspectives, we’re now in the midst of making sense of what we’ve heard. This involves thinking through how particular themes play out in each of the organisations involved in the research. We have several key themes that we’re thinking about.

Firstly, we’re starting to see some interesting patterns in terms of the balance between involving volunteers and the commercial operation of the businesses. While it is typically seen as a tension within organisations – that voluntary labour is being ‘used’ to make money – we’ve found the existence of business motivations less off-putting to volunteers than previous research had us expect. In several cases, volunteers know that their local community business is a local asset. If the mission is to improve a community, and that involves trading, and volunteers want to improve their community, they may not be in tension after all.

Second, the issue of change is prominent. Community business and the social sector are having to deal with a great number of changes at the minute, in particular dealing with and recovering from the impacts of the pandemic, but also social developments, and policy changes that have meant they’ve had to adapt how they work from their original aspirations and vision. At times, these changes can disillusion volunteers, because the community business isn’t quite what they signed up to originally. Where the organisation is changing, this can have serious implications for the role of volunteers – and newer organisations are having to think about how they involve volunteers as they establish and grow, and whether that affects their first principles.

Finally, for the moment, power relations exist in all organisations and community businesses are no different. Volunteers work both at the top of organisations (on trustee or management boards for instance) and often set up or ‘saved’ the organisation for the community in the first place. And volunteers are often doing day-to-day or supplemental tasks. These different forms of volunteering mean there are some occasions when volunteers have huge influence over the strategy of the community business, and some where they have little ability to affect the direction. How paid staff and volunteers manage these relationships – and where tensions rise – is a fascinating issue we are seeing emerge.

As noted above, we are still in the middle of this analysis. We’re still looking within and across our eight case study organisations to explore what we’ve found out, and so we can communicate more widely. We’ll be blogging again in the near future when our analysis is complete, and our report is available to read.

For the moment, you can find out more about the research by contacting Rob Macmillan at Sheffield Hallam University: rob.macmillan@shu.ac.uk.

Want your local business to thrive?

Twine is a simple business intelligence platform which is designed to help local businesses thrive.