Volunteering & social cohesion in a post Brexit world

social cohesionOn 15 September, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) National Volunteering Forum met in Manchester, England to talk about the potential implications of Brexit for volunteering, and to discuss evidence and real life examples demonstrating the role that volunteering can play in improving social cohesion. The slides from the event are shared online, and the associated tweets, here.

The tweets are SO worth reading, a mix of comments said at the forum and comments from people following online. GREAT questions and comments that will give you pause, because you shouldn’t think of obstacles to social cohesion as just a British phenomena: all over Europe, as well as the USA, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Mexico, and on and on, societies are struggling with divided socio-political landscapes. Emotions are running high, driving nationalist movements and, often, racist and xenophobia movements as well. In many places, neighbors aren’t talking to neighbors because of differences in politics, religion, language, values and more.

As I note in my paper “Internet-mediated Volunteering in the EU: Its history, prevalence, and approaches and how it relates to employability and social inclusion” for the European Commission in 2014, researchers for vInspired, in exploring the contribution of volunteering to employability for young people, found that volunteering contributed to young people’s feeling of social inclusion:

  • Volunteering helped young people to develop their networks and mix with a more diverse social group. It also increased their ability to work within and across authority structures. This suggests that providing volunteering opportunities to a wide range of young people will help to break-down social barriers and lead to greater community cohesion and personal well- being.
  • The positive contribution made by young people to the organisations and communities with which they were involved, helped to overcome the negative stereotypes often applied to them, and improved perceptions of young people amongst adults such as staff, volunteers and service users.
  • Many young people are currently in a precarious economic position with the high level of youth unemployment, and some commentators are warning of a lost generation. Helping young people to stay connected to society and their communities, to develop leadership and employability skills that will shape their future, is one of the most urgent and critical tasks of the next decade.

As I note in that paper, this and other research demonstrates that volunteering can play a crucial role in building the personal resilience and capabilities that young people need to prosper in the work place and in society in general.

However, garnering those benefits from volunteering, as well as using it to encourage social cohesion, multi-cultural understanding, reconciliation, etc., is a tall order giving the current landscape in many countries:

  • War and dire economic circumstances are driving immigration at a historic rate, with desperate people seeking to migrate to more peaceful, prosperous countries, straining resources and emotions of those living in areas immigrants want to travel through or to.
  • Different ethnic, socio-economic and religious groups, among others, are clashing over everything from perceived threats to their culture and values to police relations to access to jobs to perceptions of crime rates and quality of life compared to the past.
  • Certain people are being excluded from participating fully in the societies where they reside, or from receiving the same employment, educational, societal and other benefits others in that society may receive. These people feel they are marginalized, that they have limited access to decision-making bodies, various institutions and employment.
  • Some people’s religious and ethical values clash with public social and working life, where others that have different ethical values also socialize and work. Not everyone embraces ideas of free expression, equality for all humans in all aspects of life (employment, education, marriage, etc.), democracy, non-traditional roles for women, and the value of diversity and inclusiveness. When these people are living in a society that insists on these values, by practice and laws, hostilities can arise, with ideas of tolerance and multicultural understanding clashing with deeply held beliefs and legal practices regarding human rights.
  • Change is rampant and is frightening to many people, particularly when economic situations are fragile, or perceived as such. People are hearing different languages than the one they have grown up with, they are seeing people dressing in a way that’s different than what they believe should be the cultural norm, and technology is rapidly changing employment, education and how services are delivered. The popularity of a restaurant serving food that isn’t perceived as indigenous or is perceived as being from a country local people don’t like, a poster in a church that isn’t in the official or unofficial national language,  a woman not wearing what local people believe she should be wearing – all of these acts can be perceived by a community as a threat to their local culture and values, and lead to hostilities.

The result of all of this is people feeling more and more powerless over the decisions and forces that affect their day to day lives. Fear and uncertainty is sweeping many communities, misinformation is rampant, and everything in the environment feels politicized. Many communities are becoming more segregated, with people choosing to live and socialize with people they perceive as like them in terms of culture and values, and choosing to stay away from festivals, neighborhoods, even restaurants where they believe a different culture prevails.

Can volunteering help bridge divides, increase understanding, reduce hostilities and nurture respect and social cohesion? Certainly there are organizations and researchers that think so:

What’s lacking is research showing that these efforts have, indeed, lead to multi-cultural understanding, a lessening of hostilities, etc. 

In my paper about Internet-mediated volunteering in EU countries, I identified challenges to promoting online volunteering as a pathway to social inclusion, and I believe it is, in fact, the biggest challenge for ANY volunteering as a pathway to social inclusion: resistance to including social inclusion goals into current volunteer engagement at an organization. In other words, most managers of volunteers don’t want to make social inclusion a part of their goals for volunteer engagement. Most organizations that involve volunteers have no stated reason relating to contributing to greater social inclusion for volunteers. They may not see the benefits of adapting their volunteer engagement to contribute to such. They may not have the expertise in how to do this. And they may not have the resources needed to build their expertise to do this. Agencies may resist adapting volunteer engagement schemes to include a social inclusion element, for fear of it draining resources or focus from their primary missions which may have nothing to do with social inclusion. In short: any effort to leverage volunteering as a path to greater social cohesion has to include money to pay for training of those in charge of volunteering engagement at various agencies. Otherwise, such efforts will, every likely, be doomed to failure.

Also see:

Managers of volunteers & resistance to diversity – my blog about comments that are generated when a discussion breaks out about diversifying volunteering ranks.

This lesson plan from the University of Nebraska Extension office, “Engaging Intergenerational Volunteers“, offers practical tips on having volunteers from a variety of age groups working together, as does this how-to guide from Bridges Together.

The Victoria Volunteering Portal (Australia) offers an excellent free guide on encouraging diversity among volunteer ranks.

I also offer my own free guide on Recruiting Local Volunteers To Increase Diversity Among the Ranks.

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