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The role of volunteering in participation and democracy


7 June 2021

by Dr Jurgen Grotz
Director - Institute of Volunteering Research


As the director of the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) I was my privilege to facilitate a webinar with six outstanding colleagues, Ewen Speed (University of Essex), Lucy Hogg (Voluntary Norfolk), Stan Papoulias (Service User Research Enterprise, King's College London), Jarina Choudhury (National Council for Voluntary Organisations) Mary Sadid (National Survivor User Network), Ben Little (University of East Anglia).

The way they shared their varied experiences and knowledges and how they were prepared to listen to each other and explore ideas together lifted my heart. I am also very grateful to Ewen Speed who helped to organise the webinar. We are collaborating in the NIHR ARC East of England, which supports some of our work about Patient and Public Involvement in Research. But of course, the views expressed here and in the webinar are those of the participants, and not necessarily those of the NIHR, NHS or Department of Health and Social Care.

I was opening the event with music by Sham 69, an English punk band from the 70s. The lyrics of their song ‘If the kids are united’, released more than 40 years ago, inspired me to critically review the way we talk about volunteering. 


Just take a look around you; what do  you see

Participants offered many examples of ways volunteers are involved that contribute to democracy. That might be as campaigners, as people who support services and policy makers with their lived experience, as trade union representatives, as trustees of charities and governors of schools and so many more. In this context they identified a number of serious challenges, for example, of making the distinction between paid and unpaid labour and voluntary action. 


I don't want to be rejected; I don't want to be denied

The discussion quickly turned to pressing societal topics, in particular inequality and lack of diversity. When participants explored the concept of volunteering as an obligation, as a right or as a privilege, it became clear that current narratives lack critical perspectives on the privilege of volunteering. Privilege, for example, relating to individuals needing time and resources to volunteer. The resulting inequalities and exclusion appear so profound that even a focus on anti-oppressive practice may not, alone, offer a solution. 


If we all stand together; it will just be the start

As several of the panellists are based in universities and, or are working towards Patient and Public Involvement in Health and Social Care and associated research, they intend to challenge their institutions to respond to those profound inequalities. But together we may need to challenge all those seeking to involve volunteers, not just from the voluntary but also the public and the private sectors, to explore the oppressing consequences of institutionalised volunteerism. Together we might need to critically review prevailing attitudes and practices, policies and programmes, in order to overcome long standing and persisting inequality, working together towards new beginnings. 



At the Institute for Volunteering Research, we say that everything we do should be at least a little bit joyful. For me, despite the difficult topic and the very challenging conversation, facilitating this conversation was one of the most joyful parts of my week. Not because what we are doing is easy, or because we have found any solutions, but because we were setting out together to explore afresh the role of volunteering in participation and democracy.

I received an email with feedback I want to share because that is what IVR stands for and why I am so glad to be part of it. “Yesterday was excellent, with an outstanding panel, articulate wonderful spread of approaches and informed, disciplined but passionate discussion of major issues. Especially helpful for someone like me, actively involved but with often unfocussed views on any larger scale: I learned so much.” Heather Edwards, Norwich).

Join us when we continue to critically explore the narratives around volunteering.

The panellists were kind enough to record position statements to help us get the conversation started. I find them very powerful, so I encourage you to view them if you are interested in the role of volunteering in participation and democracy. 


Let us know what you think by emailing info.ivr@uea.ac.uk

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