Don’t be the next Blockbuster Video


Image: David Severn / British Red Cross

Is digitalisation the reason for a decline in volunteering? Or is it something else? Paul Reddish, CEO of ProjectScotland, discusses how to get more people from all walks in life engaged in volunteering and community action.

Does the volunteering sector need to consider a new approach to volunteering?

History is littered with examples of things that have been unsuccessful as a result of a failure to recognise the need for a change in approach.

Remember Blockbuster Film rental?

Bigger at the time, they turned down an approach from Netflix to merge.

It’s easy to get carried away in thinking the digital age is the cause of declines like these, but these examples also continue into other areas of society.

Sport is one such example. Traditional ‘long’ formats like golf and cricket are struggling with the battle between traditionalists wanting to preserve the game and the reality that many people today simply do not want to spend hours of their weekend doing an activity. Modern consumers of sport expect us to fit around their lifestyle.

Society is moving quicker than ever before. People are more time pressured than they have ever been, and digital advances mean they expect to be able to engage with anything instantly.

Those that don’t change what they do to support this will fail and decline. Those that impose their own views of what their product should be on their consumers will struggle. However, those that are willing to listen, to change and to focus on what a modern day person centred engagement looks like will thrive.

What does this mean for volunteering?

Whether it’s cricket, films or volunteering opportunities – whatever we present to fulfil our own needs as organisations, or businesses, has to also appeal to those we are trying to attract.

As participation rates in volunteering continue to decline, we have to ask ourselves if, as a sector, we really know what the modern day volunteer wants. We advertise what we need, but do we really understand the things we need to do today to better attract volunteers to our organisation?

When I think about volunteering for all, I think the challenge for us, as third sector organisations, is to be open to how people want to engage with us today – accept that might mean a need to change the way we work and be prepared to do it.

One factor we hear often in people not wanting to volunteer is not having the time. We have to think how we can make it easier for people to say ‘yes.’ This might mean looking more into how people can engage on short term projects with a clear end product and date – and that volunteers might want to do things on their terms and things that interest them. Rather than simply volunteer in an open ended way for a cause.

With young people in particular, one reason often cited for not volunteering is that they don’t know where to look, or that they don’t feel that the charity involved is interested in working with a young person. To show we are serious about this, we need to think about how we go into spaces where we can talk to people that we might not be attracting to volunteer. Putting up an advert on our website saying we are open for applications from all backgrounds and ages is very different from actually reaching out to a school, or a mosque or a local business, and asking to go and talk to them or to promote something in their channels.

Volunteering has the power to connect young people to their communities in a very tangible way but to get there, young people need support; in both in understanding their value to their community – and more specifically in feeling valued and welcome.  Young people also need to know what exists locally to volunteer with and offer support.  Local authorities have a key role to play in this endeavour, as they run the spaces and places that are familiar to young people through community learning & development and education.

How can we bring people together in spaces that young people feel comfortable with, and start a dialogue that encourages them to play a strong role in their communities?

The solution to increasing the diversity, number and quality of volunteering contributions in our sector will have different answers for different organisations, but in all cases it must start with listening to perspective volunteers and build our approaches around their needs.

National Youth Volunteer Design Team – Doing our bit

We intend to do our bit to support this at ProjectScotland. In this year, the Year of Young People, a partnership with Young Scot will see a group of young people across Scotland be given the opportunity to cast their views on what more can be done to help support and encourage young people to volunteer in Scotland.

This will lead to a set of recommendations at the end of the year that policy makers, charities and businesses can do to better engage our future volunteers in their communities.

Keep an eye out on the ProjectScotland website for more information about this project in the future.