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New technology and a growing interest from young people has led to a boom in ‘micro-volunteering’ in the arts. Claire Sully explains how it’s helping some organisations engage audiences and save money. 

Photo of young people with hands up

One in three of us are volunteering in the UK. In England alone this is 15.9 million individuals from an overall population of just under 54 million. Its value is estimated to be between a staggering £23 billion and £100 billion when you add in wellbeing factors. If you compare the economic value of volunteering in the UK to other industries, volunteering is a significant economic driver to our economy.

This isn’t replacing jobs, it’s people working together doing small tasks that together create a lot of benefit, driving larger projects

Volunteering has changed as demographics have shifted, creating a golden age of opportunity for people who have a lot to give. It is no longer about a rigid, time-constrained rota for recruiting gallery stewards or front-of-house staff. The challenge is that while there are more people, especially younger people, who want to devote themselves to causes and interests, they have less time to do so.

Boom in micro-volunteering

This has led to a boom in micro-volunteering – which involves smaller volunteering tasks, done in less time but with greater frequency. Digital technology has enabled micro-volunteering to grow in popularity in recent years. This isn’t replacing jobs, it’s people working together doing small tasks that together create a lot of benefit, driving larger projects for instance.

Vicki Sellick, an Executive Director at Nesta, has predicted the following: “2017 might just be the year of micro-volunteering and data donation, with cheap technologies allowing everyone to volunteer from home for short and sweet periods of time, no matter how much time they have to give.”

With more than half of all micro-volunteering in the world happening in the UK, there is a mindset that really is about doing good together.

Volunteer Makers

Museums and heritage attractions have been harnessing this mindset in a micro-volunteering programme called Volunteer Makers. It is a new model of audience engagement delivered through technology that started over five years ago when Luton Culture secured the future of Wardown Park Museum with the help of its volunteers.

Luton Culture was inspired by the volunteers (the Games Makers) at the London Olympics. My company, Tickbox Marketing, created the technology platform, resulting in ‘Museum Makers’. The number of regular volunteers at Wardown Park Museum grew from 30 to 150 in less than a year, while its overall community engagement reached thousands of people who effectively supported this one museum. They worked together to transform the museum, attracting millions of pounds in funding along the way.

Volunteer Makers has evolved since then, as we have taken a more user-led approach working with partner organisations. We are now working with around 50 organisations (including councils) across the country. The model blends public participation with volunteering through digital engagement. It allows organisations to offer manageable micro-volunteering opportunities, while growing their regular volunteering. This can be as simple as getting your community tweeting about an exhibition, writing a blog or taking a photo of their favourite object in a museum. You can even get people coming together for a one-off task to help paint a wall, litter pick or trial a trail.

If you get many more people doing these small things, it helps grow a larger pool of people engaging who then may be willing to give you more time and offer specific skills more regularly. If your volunteering opportunities aren’t accessible to different types of volunteers with different backgrounds and ages, you will miss out and find it hard to recruit and keep volunteers. Ultimately, this could affect sustainability. 

Volunteer Makers values micro-volunteers along with regular volunteering, letting its members know in real time the economic impact or value. For example, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museum created a value of over £25,000 with just under 700 volunteers in less than six months.

The model works not because it enables the management of volunteers, but because it is part of the core strategy of audience engagement. The arts have a lot to gain from fully adopting this model, not only through engaging and inspiring audiences creatively, but seeing a return value of mutual support that could reflect in the bottom line.

Claire Sully is Co-owner of Tickbox Marketing.

Volunteer Makers is running a national conference, a free fringe event at the Museums Association Conference in Manchester on Friday 17 November.

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Photo of Claire Sully