Are heart-warming case-studies the best we can do?

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By johnr on
Big Society, everything volunteering, ttvolmgrs and volunteer management 194 views 0 likes 3 comments

Following on from today’s excellent #ttvolmgrs topic "I’ve always shouted in words, but now I have numbers too…and that makes me very happy" it got me thinking about case studies.

Now I’m sure we all have many heartwarming stories about the services we provide. In fact, any front-line charity that doesn’t, really isn’t doing its job properly. But whilst these case studies are great for our individual organisations, they don’t really do much for the volunteering sector as a whole.

There are many worthy causes out there which volunteers play an invaluable role in supporting but – honestly – I don’t really have the interest to read case studies about them all. And consequently I don’t have the fully rounded picture about how integral volunteers are to every aspect of our society. Sure, I have a superficial knowledge of this but if I – someone who is passionate about volunteering, has worked in the field for nearly 20 years – don’t have the full picture than how can we expect our policy and decision-makers to do so?

So is there an alternative?

Maybe so. Maybe we need to look at in a more longitudinal and rounded way. Maybe we need to look at volunteering's impact on a person’s life rather than on a specific problem at a specific time. And during that life look at how volunteering has helped and supported them. We could tally up numbers and time, we could make some approximations as to the outcomes it's had. But what it would do, is present volunteering in a much more holistic way.

So as an example, when I was born my mum was in hospital for two weeks, during which volunteers came round with tea and biscuits every day which lifted her spirits; from six we regularly went to the community swimming pool which was built and run by volunteers; at 11 I did football training on Saturday mornings with volunteer coaches; I watch Watford play where St John Ambulance are always in attendance etc etc.

As that starts to build you get a better picture of the sheer scale of volunteers who have affected us all, individually and collectively, and a better understanding and appreciation of how volunteers touch every single one of us, whether you realise it or not.

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Top answer

I think it boils down to methodology. Volunteering's value is only captured through a rounded range of data and evidence. The result of weak case studies is often an over-reliance on metrical data that can only ever capture one part of volunteering's value.

I like your idea of placing volunteering in a broader life experience. I was involved in volunteering work in Guatemala where we assisted the World Bank in a piece of research based on monographs that brought out the value of volunteering and the issues in poverty we were working with. These monographs were built around one person's life that we worked with- and tracked many years of their life. Their name was changed to protect their anonymity. For example the monograph from Guatemala City (p.29):

It's striking that this was commissioned by the World Bank - a body you might assume would only be interested in evidence in the form of numbers and statistics.

It's worth distinguishing between the case studies that are more often developed for PR and communications purposes, and more rigorous studies of an individual's life that comply with standards in academic practice.

I'd go even further and say that a focus on heart-warming case-studies not only doesn't do much for the volunteering sector as a whole, they limit our ability to be taken seriously.

I read a statistic this week that said no matter how well-written, informative or exciting a news story is, the vast majority (90%+) of readers (including editors, sub-editors, etc) don't read past the fifth paragraph. This is the same for those inspirational, "didn't he do well" case-studies. The fact that volunteers perform activities in hard-to-measure areas makes it more difficult to attribute those vital numbers, but "volunteers delivered 200 meals last month, contributing to 800 hours of social visiting for residents, and our recent survey shows that 86% of social isolated clients felt more confident" or "since involving volunteers in the hospital doing X, Y and Z, recovery time has improved by 15%, freeing up 200 beds per year" is always going to grab the attention more. It just takes a culture change from "isn't volunteering nice, can we have some money please" to "let's start justifying our existence".


There must an equilibrium somewhere between "good news" stories/case studies and number crunching. I spend a significant amount of time attributing numbers to my work... how many information packs sent out to prospective volunteers, how many recruited, how many completed a specified training module, how long they volunteered for, why they left, how many clients they saw and problems they resolved. It makes me think of Mr Einstein; "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted".