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Reflecting on the worldwide challenges in civic engagement is of course a major challenge. Not only because these challenges are context dependent but also because civic engagement is becoming less structured more diverse. In this paper , mostly based upon Dutch experiences, I will walk you through three different kinds of interrelated topics:
- What is happening in this civil society?
- What is happening in volunteering?
- What is happening in philanthropy?
Reinventing direct solidarity
The first observation is that in all three topics (civil society, volunteering and philanthropy) the public arena seems to become less central, less government run, less homogeneous and is becoming more local, more citizens self-organizing and more diverse. To put it in a different way: it’s more from Politics of politicians (capital P) to politics of people (lowercase p). This is an interesting movement, to say the least. This decentralization might not always be helpful or good for all challenges societies face, but it is an interesting movement as it opens up new possibilities.
First, in the Netherlands a trend from indirect solidarity to direct solidarity can be observed (see Meijs and Van Vliet, 2014). Indirect solidarity means that government, based on involuntary taxes and majority decision-making in parliament, provides services to those in need based upon rights for citizens. Direct solidarity is solidarity provided by civil society, based on a voluntary donation of time and money. It is a private, individual decision, as a kind of favor, whether a client will get the needed service or not. This direct solidarity might be directed to other citizens, potentially in line with the indirect solidarity, but sometimes it is aimed at non-citizens (e.g. refugees) or specific neglected groups or causes, in contrast to government policy and indirect solidarity.
There are at least three driving forces behind this movement . First, the ongoing governmental retreat in money, in actual services but also in being able to cope with the speed of change. Second, certainly in the former European welfare states, the liberal economy concept that citizens should take care of themselves instead of expecting help from government. The third force, as can certainly be observed in the Netherlands, are citizens themselves who are not happy with the kind of social services that the government provides. They see it as too homogeneous, too low quality, too much ‘not them’. They have gotten used to and want to continue to have a more diverse kind of society, a diverse set of services, and an individualized kind of quality. They also expect a tailored approach from the government, which of course is not possible. It is like the idea that you can have your own brand of car and you can have your own beautiful house till you turn older or ill and get in need of health care. Suddenly you end up with what everybody else has too: the same electrical scooter, the same care and the same apartment. You seem to lose the right to live your own life. And that is certainly one thing that individualized people are not happy about anymore. So the three forces move societies from indirect solidarity, based upon a collective kind of feeling and solution, to this very individualized kind of direct solidarity. This might sound nice from a quality perspective but it has one big disadvantage: it is not efficient in collecting funds. Indeed, all this fundraising and recruiting volunteers is not efficient and one of the major challenges for direct solidarity. But from the donor’s perspective direct solidarity is extremely effective and even more important legitimate. One way or another, societies have to think about recombining efficient fundraising of government and effective and legitimate services of civil society.
Connected to this move to direct solidarity, a likewise move can be observed from a government perspective to a much more citizen-driven perspective. First component is Civic Driven Change (Biekart and Fowler, 2009; 2016). This is the idea that (local) citizens in a community come together and decide what they think is good for them. Which is opposed to the idea of municipal government driven change, where all citizens come together including people who are not in this local community, and the majority decides also for the local community. Second, Asset-Based Community Development (Walker, 2007; Brörmann, 2010), which starts with what communities can do, what people can do. This is opposite to the usual intervention where government and professionals tell people what they cannot do, and then start providing these kinds of things. So, communities are now moving into ‘what can we do?’ A third perspective is about the organizational diversity of civil society. Governments really are not always happy with the diversity of self-organization by citizens as it complicates their implementation processes and diminishes their control.
So, a radical community perspective is now under construction, combining Civic Driven Change, Asset-Based Community Development and Civil Society. This radical perspective is conflicting with a classical government perspective. Somewhere in-between hopefully there will be real co-production of policy and service. The dilemma of this co-space is that citizens are treated as four year olds who may help out a little under strict guidance of the parent government, where the citizens think they are twenty-five years old who can make their own decisions but behave like sixteen years old when faced with some governmental resistance. It is one big space of conflict, in many cases unhealthy.
As a final remark in this section, it is very important to understand that this new civic change thinks, talks and acts in ‘communities’ in stead of neighborhoods, municipalities or countries. Communities are not defined in or restricted by geographical boundaries but in unpredictable ways.
Cooperation with business
Third topic, a likewise functional decentralization trend is happening in the business community in relation to the public good. In short, the government part is taken out of the equation and replaced by something such as CSR and social enterprise. For example social enterprise, simply defined as where non-profits are becoming more commercial and where double bottomline organizations are experimenting how business systems can be a solution. Businesses are also becoming more social, caring about social issues. Just a Dutch example on double bottom line: in the Netherlands for example the Dopper bottle is quite hot. An idea of replacing all the plastic bottles with a (water)bottle you can reuse all the time. From the perspective of an effective solution, a law against plastic bottles probably would be better than this slow kind of political activism by buycotting, but that is simply not going to happen soon. So with boycotting and buycotting political activism moves into buyer activism (Neilson, 2010) enacted through social enterprise instead of classical advocacy, Students at the business school rarely talk about political leadership, they don’t think about Politics with the capital P, they think about servant leadership, about making companies that change the world. Again, this is from a centralized government approach to a more, maybe extreme, fragmentation of social solutions. The result might be great, but it might also be that we all do buyer activism through social enterprises having conflicting goals with no clear collective impact as a result.
So, the first part of this story is that societies seem to move away from centralized solutions and are maybe reinventing civil society. We are reinventing the idea of community but are also re-experimenting the clash between this idea of a small privately defined community doing what they think is good for them comparing to the public majority deciding what is good for everybody. Because there is also a kind of risk in ‘going civil society’ or even more extreme ‘market’.
For this movement into new organizational forms and new solutions, societies might need new words. A European project is set up to think about the old words of non-profits, for-profits and government: are they really helpful in creating this new kind of organizational innovations? (see Salamon and Sokolowski, 2016; Defourny et al, 2016) Are they describing what is going to happen? At this moment European countries think about changing their law around the non-profit distribution constraint. Non-profits are called non-profits because they are not allowed to distribute (part of) their profit. But if a social enterprise wants to have commercial investors but also use governmental money as a subsidy, they are caught in the middle. The social enterprise wants to be allowed to share profits but meanwhile cannot do it as the subsidy probably preferably goes to a nonprofit. So, law and policy makers are looking for ways of removing this lock on profit sharing. But they also are confronted with the idea whether they want to create a company that can be sold. This is called the capital lock and the questions are even more complex. Similar questions apply to cooperatives.
Other questions are raised for the idea of ‘what do we call activity without pay which is not highly organized?’. Highly organized is clear and can be called ‘volunteering’, but what happens if it becomes less and less organized? What happens when it becomes micro volunteering through the telephone? Where a lot of political volunteering nowadays is happening. And what does it mean for political activism on Facebook, on Twitter if your government can follow everything? How dangerous is political activism on Facebook?
The future of volunteering
What is new and happening in volunteering? The biggest challenge is moving from the idea that it is about volunteering. It is actually about voluntary energy in your society which organizations translate into volunteering, the actual behavior that helps. The community policy focus should shift from counting volunteering to measuring volunteer energy levels or in other words volunteerability (Haski-Leventhal, Meijs, Lockstone-Binney, Holmes and Oppenheimer, 2017).
Just after 2001, a project started to do a research on new insights on volunteering by employing a natural resource metaphor (Brudney and Meijs, 2009; Brudney and Meijs, 2013). Comparing volunteering to fish, or sheep or grass. But maybe also to internet access, university access and things like that. The starting point was the idea of the commons and the potential tragedy that pessimist are predicting already for a long time (Hardin, 1986). Added was a more fundamental question about the features of volunteer energy. This lead to new insigths.
The first challenge is to maintain the old traditional all-time volunteer. The traditional commitment, what metaphorically can be compared to oil, is used and misused for all kinds of volunteer functions. As volunteer managers know these super-volunteers simply can never say ‘no’. As a result they are asked to do more and even more. Until they are suddenly burned out and leave. Dutch research shows that traditional volunteering is diminishing, or at least during work life. The traditional volunteer is really becoming someone who is retired.
The work life volunteer is someone that metaphorically is comparable to fish. It is an extreme metaphor but like in the ocean, society has different kinds of fish (volunteers), and every fish (volunteer) needs different food, different catching and cooking methods. Volunteer involving organizations need to understand how to treat all these different kinds of fish, kinds of volunteers. Many of these fishes are ‘hyphenated’ (add-on) volunteering, which will be explained in depth later-on. This is the new way to recruit and to find volunteer energy, and maybe to translate the volunteer energy into real volunteering. And if society wants to have more fish, creating a policy is not about counting the fish, more important is to know what the ocean looks like. What is the reproductive capacity? So, if more volunteers are needed in society, do not count the current volunteers, it does not help to develop a policy. Research what your ocean looks like. It is not about the fish, it is about the ocean.
Third, the metaphor of solar energy. That is the newest challenge in volunteering. All too often many volunteers just pop up, spontaneous eruption of willingness to volunteer. Or spontaneous eruptions of angry people. And it always seem to happen when the organization does not need it, ‘the sun shines when you are inside’. It is a flow of energy that society does not want to spill. Individuals are ready to produce volunteer energy, they want to give it to your organization, they are ready to become a volunteer now, but then many organizations are not ready to use it. Because it does not fit the organizational schedule. From a metaphorical environmental perspective that is a waste of resources.
In Hyphenated volunteering the act of volunteering is connected to something else in the schedule of people. Connecting to another obligation has at least three potential effects. First, in many continental European countries volunteer recruiters don not know anymore where to find volunteer energy. It used to be the church place but that is being replaced by new places like the workplace (corporate volunteering), high schools (community service), universities (service learning) and vacations (voluntourism).
The picture on the slide is a Dutch nonprofit organization called ‘Jarige Job’, which refers to celebrating your birthday. About 60.000 kids in the Netherlands cannot celebrate their birthday properly because their parents are too poor. Jarige Job identifies these parents and children and organizes birthday boxes with treats to give at school, presents for the parents and siblings to give and other things you need such as balloons, cakes, whipped cream etcetera to celebrate birthdays. But needing many volunteers, Jarige Job decided to get extreme on hyphenated volunteering. As you can see in the balloon on the slide it says ‘family Meijs’, because we were celebrating my birthday by making birthday boxes. This example the energy is not from a company, a main supplier, but comes from a family. We know from grandparents, people over 80, who celebrate their birthdays with all the family by making birthday boxes. Another example is single volunteering. Once a year on Valentine’s Day Jarige Job organizes dating with your heart. All the volunteers are single.So, if you are a clever non-profit organization or volunteer involving organization you find a way to connect to the other obligations in the agenda.
The concept of volunteerability (Meijs, Ten Hoorn, and Brudney, 2006; Meijs and Brudney, 2007) implies a need to increase the potential to volunteer in organizations and in the broader society. Employability is the word used for the potential for people to find new employment, e.g, after being fired. In this case the question is: how can citizens be made volunteerable now, in the future and still also after bad experiences? Volunteerability is based on three building blocks that a society can try to influence. First, the willingness of people to do something for someone else. Willingness generally spoken is high, but not always for a specific cause, client group or organization. Secondly, the capability: can they do what they are asked for? And are they willing to offer the capability what is requested? Remember, it is about the free will of volunteers. For example, an accountant comes to volunteer at a small organization in Rotterdam which needs a treasurer, but he wants to visit old people, which the organization does. In the end, he doesn’t do anything at all, because he doesn’t want to be a treasury in his free time. He wants to help people as a volunteer. So, the capability given is to the volunteer to decide. The same about availability, and this is where the tension really happens. People during their work time are less available, during the times that organizations want them. There are solutions for that, like the episodic hypenated volunteering. It is about creating availability based upon a huge diverse set. It is about asking for a broad portfolio of assets. And it is about creating negotiable assignments. If done right, there is a triple A of Availability, Assets and Assignments.
If done correctly, volunteer management will move from an old paradigm to a new paradigm. The old traditional volunteer management paradigm is: organizational-centered, focused on current instrumental use of the volunteer resource and the fit between the volunteer and our organization is the starting point. The new community-centered paradigm is aimed at keeping volunteer energy alive. A responsibility that cannot be outsourced by volunteer involving organizations to the government. In the Netherlands, roughly between 2001 till 2012, the idea of volunteer involving organizations seemed to be that it’s the task of the government to make certain that there will be enough volunteers, now and in the future. That is a bit weird, to make a blunt statement. Because maintaining the main resource for an organization, is a responsibility of that organization too. So, it means that while translating volunteer energy into volunteering, volunteer managers should think about what happens next time? How can volunteerability be sustained or maybe even grow? Because the hypothesis is that when people have a bad experience in a workplace, they might resign if the economy is good, but then they will start looking for a new paid job as soon as possible. But if they had a bad experience in volunteering, they are not going to immediately find themselves a new volunteer job. We all hope that in the end they will become volunteers again, but the lacked and lost time might be longer.
Volunteerability is based on three building blocks: willingness, capability and availability. Willingness is based on social norms, attitudes, values and psychological motives. Capabilities are based upon, perceived or actual, skills, knowledge and ability. Capability again is mostly in the eyes of the potential volunteer: how does the volunteer perceive the capability and is the volunteer willing to donate this specific skill or maybe something more general? Availability, to be honest, is also really in the mind of the people. In the Netherlands 50% of the people volunteer on average about four hours a week, the hours are decreasing a little bit, and a little increase in the percentage.
So, what can be done? Support the new forms, support organizational change, remove all these barriers, and measure volunteerability instead of volunteering. Try to find out what the willingness of people is and how willingness can be improved like the other building blocks. Do not focus on the number. Second, do research on the new forms and how to improve volunteerability. How can we create more capability? How can we create more availability? How does the availability connect to the other obligations in someone’s schedules, like dating, a family or work? Can it be connected? How does it work? And how does regenerative volunteer management work?
Last topic is philanthropy. Now philanthropy I find the most challenging word out of these three. Because it is very difficult to grasp, and it is about all the previous topics.
A major fuel for all these changes is philanthropy, defined as the voluntary donation of time, in kind, and/or money. Now, the challenge with philanthropy is that it is done by different actors such as individual citizens, companies, fundraising foundations and endowed foundations. And every donor and foundation has the duty to combine what the donor wants to what the beneficiaries want. And continuously play this balancing game. And that is what we call philanthropic governance, balancing these two voices that cannot get 100% what they want. The donor wants the beneficiaries just to do what he or she wants and thinks is good, but they are in many cases humans too. They have a voice. The beneficiaries want to have the proverbial golden tap in their house at the expense of the donor, which the donors are not going to fund. So, we have a governance challenge.
Philanthropic organizations have to ask the question: can the donors give feedback or not? If a donor is already dead for 400 years, a donor cannot tell anymore if the foundation is doing a good job. But if the donor is just one donor like a company or a wealthy celebrity, they can exactly tell the board what to do. Second, can the beneficiaries give feedback yes or no? One beneficiary can, millions is already complicated but talking to trees is impossible.
The interesting thing is that what we call ‘free spirits’ are also the ones that find day to day board work very easy for themselves but have the biggest challenge for philanthropy or governance. Because they can do whatever they want themselves, but are they doing something that is good for the world? In their mind it might not be good for the world. So, there is a challenge around that one.
And that challenge is becoming even more important, because there is pressure to prove impact. Now, the first level of impact is the intervention. Does something that we do help? But for that intervention level it really does not matter where the money comes from. It does not matter whether is comes from the government or philanthropy. On that level the impact idea of philanthropy and government or business is the same. On the level of society, the impact problem of philanthropy rises. It might be that when two philanthropists are funding two opposing causes, there is no movement at all. Both reach impact, but together there is no impact. So, we have to solve this dilemma of the opposing funding streams or projects. But then the third one, the impact of philanthropy as a concept in the three sectors, business, government and civil society, is that they can do stupid things. They are allowed to do their own funny, small stupid things. Which they find the most important thing for the world, and the rest of the world thinks they are crazy. But they are allowed to do it at a fundamental theoretical level. That’s a challenge.
Concluding, voluntary action, civil society, organized citizens, it is all on the rise. It is a rise of direct solidarity. It is a rise of volunteer energy, also with the new technologies.It is a rise of communities based responsibility, policy and action. That is a positive perspective compared to all the gloomy pictures of a highly individualized world. Simply put, there is no crisis in the energy and action of the direct solidarity.But, at the same time all this communities based action bears the risk of lacking a collective, common agenda of and for the communities. This is where a new balance between civic driven change and government driven change is needed. In that perspective, the challenge is not about finding and mobilizing enough resources, but making certain that these resources are not used to reach conflicting goals!
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This paper is based upon the transcript of a lecture as part of the “The Challenges of Social Engagement in Israel: Volunteering, Philanthropy and Civil Society within Changing Reality” conference in Israel in 2018.
For a brief policy background of the developments in the Netherlands see https://www.raadrvs.nl/binaries/raadrvs/documenten/publicaties/2013/12/01/rmo-factsheet-forms-of-diversity/RMO_factsheet_Forms_of_diversity.pdf