Community members feel that volunteer work has two distinctive values that helps them to be more resilient:
Firstly, all types of communities value volunteering because it gives people the ability to self-organize around their own priorities. By coming together to volunteer, individuals can create collective strategies for dealing with risk. This is important in times of crisis for the speed of response, flexibility, ownership and agency of efforts, particularly in the most isolated communities where other types of support are limited. In other contexts, self-organization is more important for marginalized groups.
Secondly, by its nature, volunteerism is formed around human connections. Research participants highlighted that the solidarity, empathy and connections generated through social action are a protective factor when times are hard. Human connections and networks enable communities to share information on risks, to reach out to their most vulnerable members, and to act based on empathy and shared values.
The vast majority of volunteers are working day in, day out in their own communities. But because volunteerism is part and parcel of communities under strain, it means that it also cannot be romanticized. In some contexts, volunteering might have a less positive impact on resilience.
For example, local volunteer efforts can be effective at responding to shocks and stresses, but with insufficient resources they may not help communities prevent crises and to adapt. New and emerging risks such as increasing climate variability are also putting traditional volunteering strategies under strain.
Furthermore, because volunteering is rooted in social relationships, volunteering can also be exclusive, exploitative and burden the most vulnerable. Power dynamics within and across communities mean that women, and marginalized groups are often taking on the majority of lower-status volunteering. At the same time, volunteer roles that increase skills and leadership opportunities are not available to all.
These findings challenge the assumption that focusing on the local will automatically enhance participation and empower volunteer groups in a transformative way. To help communities bounce back, it is important to create an environment that recognizes and maximizes the most positive characteristics of volunteerism, and addresses its challenges.