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Are we thinking about volunteering all wrong?

25 June 2019 at 8:44 am
Danielle Kutchel
Organisations need to better understand how they provide value to individuals and the broader network, not just meet the needs of a specific program, as we move towards a more decentralised world of doing good, writes Ebony Gaylor from REDxFutures.

Danielle Kutchel | 25 June 2019 at 8:44 am


Are we thinking about volunteering all wrong?
25 June 2019 at 8:44 am

Organisations need to better understand how they provide value to individuals and the broader network, not just meet the needs of a specific program, as we move towards a more decentralised world of doing good, writes Ebony Gaylor from REDxFutures.

There has been significant change in the volunteering sector over the last few decades, with increased numbers of volunteers, the emergence of new concepts like micro/virtual/episodic volunteering and an increase in programmatic and structured approaches to “doing good”. Much of this has been a result of building the legitimacy, evidence and professionalism of volunteering.

We have also seen a dramatic change in the way that the private sector is involved in giving and doing good. Moving away from transactional interactions (like one day volunteering) and grandiose values statements, toward more transformational relationships and the emergence of hybrid organisations (that combine purpose and profit) like social enterprises and B Corps. On top of this there has been exponential growth in the use of digital platforms and spaces that spark and coordinate action, including digital communities and hashtag movements.

There is no doubt that we are living in complex and uncertain times, driven by rapid social and technological change. Formal and structured organisations are struggling to meet the emerging demands and interests of “humanitarians” as more of us are doing good in decentralised and networked ways.

Millions of Australians are doing good already, yet we want to do more. We are in a new era of social action, connection and change that requires ideas, organisations and interventions that prioritise participation over control. Organisations will now need to support and amplify through distributed power to individuals, peers and networks, rather than programs and services. We have an opportunity to reimagine the role of organisations, brands and industries in sparking, supporting and channelling the efforts of individuals to create significant, positive social change.

Changes in how we take action

There are a number of key changes that have shifted the way we think about volunteering, taking action or doing good:

We want to take action in hyperlocal and global ways. Individuals are seeking out opportunities that align with their specific social identity and all of the components that make them unique. This is not just about the cause that resonates most with me (right now), or where I live, but also what I have (skills, behaviours, resources and assets) that will offer most value to this specific cause or initiative, how it will make me feel or contribute to my identity and importantly how this will contribute to significant global impact. This contributes to a hyperlocal / global tension: individuals are looking for a personally meaningful experience or way to contribute that also connects them with larger scale change and impact.

We want to do good efficiently. Many individuals are motivated by a desire to do the most good they can. As organisations have sought to respond to the emerging technological opportunities (such as virtual, micro and other forms of online volunteering) individuals and communities have been increasingly self-organising and bypassing structured organisations. From funding platforms, to direct giving, online communities and social media movements, individuals are now able to do good in ways that are relevant and convenient to them, through existing behaviours (such as ethical purchasing, social media use) and connecting through existing networks outside of any organisation or brand. Increasingly individuals want to be able to see (very tangibly) how their effort is contributing and adding value to a community or cause, and importantly how this links to their sense of connection or identity.

Organisations sometimes make “doing good” hard. The volunteer sector has increasingly been subject to regulation that challenges informal modes of volunteering or doing good. As a sector we have built the evidence, approaches, models and infrastructure to respond to this, while also trying to improve the way we deliver, manage and measure volunteering. This has not only been valuable, but necessary as we work with individuals and communities experiencing vulnerability. Yet these improvements, systems and approaches have also contributed to a professionalised and regulated experience for individuals. These front-end heavy processes (such as applications, info sessions, forms, checks and wait times), along with increased “time poverty”, contribute to disincentives for action, making alternative avenues and organisation all the more appealing.

What this means for organisations

These drivers have contributed to a significant change in the way we think about, talk about and take (humanitarian) action both in activating individuals and reimagining the role and value of organisations in mobilising millions.

The future of doing good, requires organisations to consider three areas to better understand how we design, nurture and amplify the efforts of millions.

Focus on participation over control:

Organisations must take on the role of facilitator and connector, rather than director or leader. This requires organisations and leaders to be open to and seek out grassroots action and decision-making, to refocus efforts on how to connect, share and amplify the efforts of networks and communities. In this space, organisations focus on creating the lowest barrier possible to doing good, starting with the interests and contexts of individuals, rather than starting from the organisational goal, program focus or position description.

Design for experiences rather than roles or title:

If we think about “doing good” as a behaviour across a spectrum – in terms of intent, type of action, risks, power and control, as well as impact and support requirements  – you can begin to imagine and design for this action to be dynamic and evolving.

Graph showing behaviour across a spectrum.


The current effort of many structured volunteer involving organisations focuses primarily at the far right (directed/controlled) end of the spectrum. We have developed systems, structures and rules that are designed to direct and support individuals to take action in very directed and specific ways. These approaches are highly effective in sparking and supporting action that occurs in high risk environments (for example disaster response roles, working with people at times of vulnerability) and where specific and centralised direction or control are needed.

When these same systems, structures and rules are applied right across the spectrum of action, it creates immediate disincentives and barriers to participation. The future of doing good means that organisations need to design for experiences that evolve, rather than long-term, high commitment roles or relationships. Their relationship and involvement with an organisation or cause will need to flex over time as their interests, resources, motivation and life circumstances change.

Leverage networks and influence:

There is huge potential to mobilise individuals and communities when we understand the role of structured organisations within networks. In the current context there is an increasing blurring of lines between the concept of volunteering and more broadly doing good. In networked environments the role, contribution and connection of individuals is changing quickly. Meaning that people can opt in and out of causes, contribute more or less as they please and participate in decision making in more decentralised ways.

The role of organisations has historically focused on the delivery of a service through volunteering, by understanding the context and directing the action or volunteering to fit a specific need identified by the program or organisation. As the focus shifts from one program, role or individual to a more networked lens, organisations can focus their efforts on making action more accessible and personally meaningful to individuals and also understanding and channelling the connected effort of the entire network toward positive social change.


The way that individuals and communities mobilise to do good has changed forever and will continue to evolve. Along with this, many of the complexities and challenges facing our communities can, must and are already being solved by the power of people helping people.

Organisations need to better understand how they provide value to individuals and the broader network, not just meet the needs of a specific program. We need to be creating space and place for people to be empowered and supported to take action  – connecting, influencing and channelling the efforts of everyday people to do more good.

Organisations must focus on sparking interest and connection, nurturing influencers and leaders and identifying patterns and themes that can help to connect and amplify the efforts of entire communities to create positive impact. Structured organisations need to be asking themselves what value and assets they can offer emerging networks for change. And importantly how prepared they are to redirect their interest, investment and effort towards a more decentralised world of doing good.

About the author: Ebony Gaylor is a social designer and entrepreneur, curious about the intersections of people, data, social change and the future of humanity. Ebony is the head of mobilisation and social change in new futures design team REDxFutures, at Australian Red Cross.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.

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One comment

  • Stuart says:

    Brilliant story Ebony – I agree wholeheartedly and strongly believe that in the coming years volunteer work will become part of the social welfare machine.
    Stuart Holmes

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