Volunteering in community business: Meaning, practice and management

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

Volunteering is extensive across community businesses. Nearly all involve at least one volunteer, and some are entirely reliant upon them. Volunteers operate at all levels: from governance, through to leadership, frontline delivery and administrative roles. Power to Change estimates that while community businesses collectively employ 33,900 paid staff, they involve 205,600 volunteers. Another study estimated that the value of volunteering to community businesses was between £210-250 million, equivalent to £25,000 per organisation.

Volunteering is, however, variable. Existing evidence shows differences in the scale of volunteering, and in what volunteers do, between community businesses depending on type, size and location. It is estimated that half of all community business volunteers are found in village halls. While village halls have a volunteer to staff ratio of 21:1, in libraries the ratio is 44:1, and in craft and industry based community businesses it is 1:1. Smaller community businesses involve a higher ratio of volunteers to paid staff than compared to larger ones.

There are also variations over time. While as a nation we have been celebrating soaring levels volunteering as people have stepped up to help out with the response to covid-19, community business as a whole are reporting a decline in volunteer numbers. More than half (57%) of the community businesses responding to Power to Change’s Community Business Market 2020 survey reported a decline in the number of volunteers they involve, with the average number of volunteers involved dropping from 25 in 2019 to 14 in 2020.

We have then a fairly good idea about the scale of volunteering across community businesses. But that is about it. We don’t know what lies behind these variations. We know very little about how volunteering is organised or experienced within community businesses; let alone what difference it makes.

Power to Change has funded the Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University to work in partnership with the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham to explore these issues, through the Open Call for Research grant programme. Our research will address the question: how is volunteering understood and organised in community businesses and what are the implications of this for volunteering experiences and outcomes?

Wider literature on volunteering and on social enterprise suggests that the setting in which volunteering takes place, the approach to volunteer management adopted, and the individual characteristics and motivations of volunteers themselves, can make a considerable difference to how volunteering is experienced and the outcomes that it leads to. Context is key. It has also been suggested, however, that volunteer management literature too frequently takes a ‘universalistic approach’ where ‘volunteering is volunteering is volunteering’. And that within organisations, ‘workplace approaches’ to volunteer management, in which volunteers are managed in similar ways to paid staff, appear dominant.

Yet there are other ways of thinking about and organising volunteers. Rather than unpaid employees, volunteers can be thought of and organised as members, or co-owners, activists, supporters or champions. They may move between these roles, or between paid and unpaid roles, and they can be involved for sustained periods or more episodically.  The different ‘logics’ – or ways of thinking and doing – that combine in hybrid’ organisations such as community businesses can be significant in this. Theory would suggest, for example, that volunteering would look and feel differently in those organisations that are more business orientated compared to those that are more community orientated. As others have argued, there is little evidence to date however that puts these ideas to the test.

In our study we are looking to work with eight case study community businesses – could you be one of them? We want to explore how volunteering is organised, what influence volunteers have on community businesses, and what the relationship is between volunteering and the commercial orientation of a community business.

Please do get in touch if you would like to express an interest in being one of our case studies, or to find out more about the research. Contact Rob Macmillan at Sheffield Hallam University: rob.macmillan@shu.ac.uk

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