Do over-50s call it social action? Or just volunteering? Naming debates are frequently dull and time-consuming within the social sector, distracting from the actual work of doing things, but I do worry a little about the framing effects of this for potential volunteers.

That being said, there is a considerable news from Nesta to be positive about, with three new funds to support organisations who are trying to support people who are over-50 to give more time to social causes. One fund seems to fit a more standard volunteering model, one is about building the evidence base with an RCT, and the third is perhaps the more explicitly 'social action' fund, sharing similarities with the City Year-style model of intensive volunteering.

A few thoughts from me after having evaluated a number of the projects in the social action innovation fund, and being a behavioural scientist who has run an RCT on the barriers to micro-volunteering with the homelessness charity, Crisis:

  • Any new project or approach should look to keep the barrier to entry low for those who are joining or signing up to become a volunteer, and not give away the 'warm glow' that people gain from volunteering cheaply once you've got them hooked. Cognitively, people like to be consistent, so we know that once you start to see yourself as a volunteer, you're more likely to do more volunteering and make more of an effort. If you're new to it, then any excuse to not do it can be quite persuasive.
  • Make the way of delivering the activity as reciprocal as possible. Social action organisations call this double-benefit, but whatever you call it I believe for this age group that all people would benefit from feeling that reciprocity. I think the neighbourliness focus of North and South London Cares is amazing, and something that many others could learn from, rather than focusing on one 'beneficiary' group. In those sister charities, everybody is a beneficiary and a helper, because it is about relationships.
  • Issues and places matter because they give a hook, even if the outcome doesn't change for the volunteer depending on the issue they choose. Many of the volunteers for Carers UK's new volunteer embedded way of working, for example, were carers themselves. They volunteered for that organisation for a very specific reason. The benefits that we saw in out evaluation were often more akin to generic volunteering benefits. I don't see this as a negative in any way. Caring was the hook, but everybody benefits if the programme is run well. Similarly, many years ago I evaluated Big Lottery's Community Libraries programme. People got involved in the library because it represented their place to them. That was the hook.
  • Finally, given there is a clear separation of objectives for the three funds, and an explicit research pot (which is great), make sure that the two delivery focussed funds have learning based evaluation strategies baked into them, rather than impact measurement strategies. This difference is so important for early stage ideas, and I think the work of people like Michael Quinn Patton in the US, and also the Centre for Youth Impact in the UK, really endorses that value. Getting new projects and organisations to prove the effectiveness of an approach, at the same time as building their charity or business, is frequently a path to frustration for all parties (and poor evidence).