Let's talk about volunteering impact data - Is that the key for developing the volunteering infrastructure in Europe?
If we were to assess the advancements in volunteering support across Europe, would we be able to express them in a way that is quantifiable and that allows us to see where support structures need to develop further? What is the key to expressing these advancements and their role and value for the European society?
In the 10 years since the European Year of Volunteering 2011 we have seen a number of positive changes and improvements in volunteering support across Europe (some of which you can read about in our previous blogs), be it in the legal frameworks for volunteering, or in the diversity of volunteering programmes, or in the inclusion structures for volunteering.
All of these however are part of a wider concept which we need to be focusing on, which is the overall volunteering infrastructure. In the Policy Agenda for Volunteering in Europe, back in 2011, the volunteering infrastructure was defined as a combination of two important elements: organisational structures and support mechanisms.
Organisational structures are volunteering-involving organisations (public or private, for or not for profit) and volunteering support organisations (volunteering centres or networks, such as CEV), which act at local, national or regional level.
The support mechanisms refer to those structures that enable the organisational structures to deliver their volunteering support services in a systematic, organised, inclusive way; these include volunteering legal frameworks, funding schemes, research and data collection systems, communication and consultation channels, standards of practice etc.
These two elements need to exist and function together for volunteering support to actually translate in an infrastructure that is able to successfully respond to and meet the needs of the society in general.
Back in 2011, while assessing the then current situation regarding the volunteering infrastructure in Europe, a vision for the ideal situation for the future was formulated. It was holistic and comprehensive and centered around the idea that all stakeholders needed to collaborate to create and implement the support mechanisms that the above-mentioned volunteering organisational structures can use for supporting volunteers across Europe.
Of all the mechanisms mentioned in that vision (as presented in PAVE, pages 27 - 28), some of them have indeed seen some levels of development which bring volunteering support in Europe closer to that vision: there are stronger legal frameworks in member states; there are new volunteering programmes which point to a more inclusive approach in volunteering support; some funding schemes have developed and became slightly more manageable in terms of the reporting and application procedures, due to more advanced digitalisation across Europe.
There are however at least a couple of areas which have seen little to no improvement in the last 10 years, and which may be the key for volunteering support to really take off in Europe and bring a significant impact on the wider European society. These areas are: the channels of communication and collaboration across sectors, especially at public sector level; and data collection and research.
Regarding the channels of communication and collaboration in volunteering support, currently these are mostly led by volunteering support organisations and networks, which ensure relevant information is being transmitted from European level down to local level, for all volunteering involving entities and support organisations to use in supporting volunteers across Europe. To ensure effective communication among all stakeholders though, more effort needs to go into strengthening and streamlining these communication channels.
The other area that is lacking advancements, and which might actually be the key to making all other mechanisms succeed, is data collection and research on volunteering in Europe.
Every entity active in volunteering support in Europe has some level of impact data collection and management, mostly used for reporting purposes. However currently there is no measurement and evaluation framework for volunteering impact in Europe, which can be adapted and used at local, national and regional level. That is the great gap that is stopping the vision for volunteering support in Europe from coming to life.
We say that we strongly feel this is the key to creating and maintaining a viable volunteering infrastructure in Europe because we are actually talking about expressing the value of volunteering in our society. We believe that being able to express the impact of volunteering in a quantifiable way, using relevant, measurable indicators, would truly make the difference in different stakeholders grasping and considering the real value that volunteering has in Europe.
We are not only referring to numbers (of volunteers, of people supported, of the financial burden lightened by volunteers’ contribution, especially in the economically challenged communities), but of the depth of the impact on people’s lives, on the lasting change that occurs through volunteers’ service across communities, on the systemic shift that is brought by the development of a volunteering culture in all communities, enabling all types of volunteering to make their selfless contribution to the cause they choose. This is, as such, a conversation about both quantity and quality, about both immediate and lasting impact, about the spontaneous and sustainable support that volunteers offer and which volunteering supporting organisations enable for all.
The fact that we are missing such a framework is something that we need to rectify immediately. Having such a framework would ensure we are able to express the real value of volunteering in words that all groups of stakeholders can understand and can relate to. And if we are able to express the value of volunteering in a way that is understood by all stakeholders, every other mechanism needed can be built on and flow from this expression of value. We all know we are talking about a significant, life changing, society level impact of volunteering, but without a proper framework to express it, it is left floating in a sea of assumptions, estimations and expectations.
Let’s start from there, then. From building a framework of monitoring and evaluation of the volunteering actions of volunteers across Europe. And when we have that framework, let’s push for it to be adopted and used at local, national and regional level. That will be the fuel we need to further advocate for public and private support, for a stronger and more accessible funding scheme for volunteers and volunteering and for truly including volunteering on the agenda of decision and policy makers, in the interest of all citizens of Europe.