Richard Fletcher explains the use of peer mentors to make volunteering more attractive

We care what our peers think. Amusingly, for all our noisy, twenty-first century, digital celebrations of individuality, our understanding of peer groups and desire for social capital has, if not grown, then certainly become more apparent. ‘People like us’ can be categorised not just by age, gender, location, income and ethnicity, but by any number of preferences and behaviours too. We can measure how habits spread through groups. If a smoker quits, by setting an example, they help friends quit too, though some are known to be more irritating about this than others. It’s not a magic wand obviously; social influence is a mysterious thing. Peer education (PE) is a way of developing peer networks for knowledge sharing or behavioural change, in comparison to a formal top-down hierarchy.

A PE project usually goes thus: a group of volunteers are given training in a particular issue and how to communicate effectively, so that they can share this with their peer group. Already you can make an educated guess as to where the strengths and weaknesses of PE lie. The educators are seen as more authentic and easier to relate to as sources of information than a professional. They can see eye to eye with their audience and share an emotional, social and intellectual level that is pretty much impossible to achieve otherwise. (We all know the shame of the ‘cool’ teacher.). The downsides generally being that PEs may not be confident or sensitive enough in their communications, do not have a level of knowledge useful to their peers, or that the organisation has under resourced and expected it to over achieve.
My observation of PE comes as a result of evaluating a research council funded public engagement project called ‘Face Your Elephant’, the focus of which was to educate music festival-goers about the role of science and engineering in dealing with climate change. See www.faceyourelephant.org for more.
One motivation behind this project was, in terms of reducing total energy use across the board, work on supply-side solutions could only go so far, and further progress would be better achieved through addressing the demand-side. For example, to achieve the same end, we could build more renewable power sources (supply), or we could try to encourage people to reduce consumption (demand). The cultural sector equivalents could be programming (supply) or marketing (demand). Purely rational thinking can reject demand-side logic, but then we should remind ourselves that human activity is not purely rational and the approaches can be used simultaneously. A supply-side solution certainly has its benefits – it appeals to our logical side, it has a defined scope and is measureable; hence justifiable. A demand-side solution is more nebulous to deliver and monitor, targets are softer and as a result budgets (of any size) trickier to justify.
If PE is a demand-side ‘tool’, it would fit well within a suitably holistic communications, or audience development strategy. We know word of mouth is ‘the best’, but does anyone have a word of mouth strategy, outside of having a Twitter account? Arts ambassadors are a known PE example, and there are subtly different models out there to choose from. Managing exploitation is of course necessary, nothing comes for free. Links with other organisations and an imaginative approach can increase value and take some of the resource-heavy sting out of creating a PE initiative. It will take time (years?) to fully develop, after all, you are trying to build a full market from its smallest component pieces. Doesn’t’ that seem like the natural place to start though?
Finally, lurking under this whole concept are the ethics of manipulating natural social links for an ulterior motive. There is not nearly enough time to go into this, only to say that similar criticisms get made of all sorts marketing activity; to which we can at least show that PE is an active and authentic two-way discussion in a bottomless, passive, one-way marketing environment.
 

Richard Fletcher is Research Assistant in Arts and Festivals Management at De Montfort University, currently focusing on music festivals as part of a long-term, cross-faculty project. He also freelances in graphic design and event production.

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