Asset-based community participation: A new way of volunteering

Volunteering includes any unpaid activity which benefits the society or other people, according to NCVO.

This could be formal activity, undertaken through a service provider or informal activity within the community. Typically, formal volunteering involves a recruitment process similar to paid roles, properly delineated shift hours and the clear differentiation between volunteers and participants.

A 2010 working paper, published by the Institute for Volunteering Research, found that after working without pay, and spending time on activities which would benefit a cause other than the individual, there was a third, commonly used definition of volunteering. This conception emphasises the mutually beneficial aspects of volunteering.

From improvement of skills to the positive feeling gained when giving back to the community, there are clearly a range of more abstract motivations which appeal to the volunteer.

However, the perception of volunteering as defined by (lack of) payment continues. The same working paper detailed a cross cultural analysis of eight countries, in the early 2000s, which found that the dominant perception of volunteering is that it is chiefly defined as having a cost to the individual, be this in time, money or other assets. Furthermore, that the higher the cost, the ‘more of a volunteer’ they are deemed to be.

Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) indirectly challenges this traditional view of volunteering.

Although it sounds like a mouthful, an ABCD approach is simply one which makes the most of a community’s existing strengths. These could be physical, such as public halls or green spaces, which can be utilised to the neighbourhood’s advantage. They also include the skills possessed by a group of people. Those skills, when combined, offer collective empowerment. In short, ABCD focuses on the strengths, not the weaknesses.

Under these circumstances, the strategic mapping of a community’s assets, reveals opportunities for interaction, sharing and community building which increases confidence and strengthens community ties and resources into the future. The human assets – e.g. skills sharing and time donation – correspond with traditional volunteering behaviours. However, in these cases, the ‘communities create confidence in their ability to be producers, rather than recipients, of development’. Although some participants may be more asset-rich than others, and therefore will contribute to a larger extent, they also benefit significantly. The line between volunteer and recipient is blurred.

Using ABCD as a foundation for real, lasting change in Birmingham

Ageing Better in Birmingham exemplifies asset based ‘volunteering’. As a programme which identifies existing social groups for older people, and helps them to grow, the formal recruitment of volunteers is bypassed in favour of a more organic approach.

Within Birmingham there are already many groups which benefit from the input of multiple members of the community, from gardening clubs which have led to participants gaining professional horticultural certificates, to Bosnian folk dancing and art therapy sessions.

The leaders and very active group members do a lot of traditional volunteer activity, from admin support to helping with transportation. At the same time, they are intrinsically involved, often continuously, over long periods of time. They have genuine relationships within their groups and identify strongly as members. Furthermore, co-production between older people and the programme team and delivery partners is integral. Many active group members choose to become part of the Age of Experience group, providing insight into diverse older experiences and having valuable input in decision making.

Overall, while it’s likely that there will always be a place for formal and service led volunteering, there are huge benefits to being involved in your community in a more organic way. The type of volunteering exhibited in Ageing Better in Birmingham exemplifies the rewarding and valuable contribution that can be made on a grass roots level, within the heart of the community.