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Organisational volunteering: Meanings of volunteering, professionalism, volunteer communities of practice and wellbeing

Volunteering has become the major means by which individuals and communities connect and engage with significant social issues. While volunteering is typically constructed as an inherently positive activity that improves personal and social wellbeing, this project critically examines the relationship between organisational volunteering and wellbeing. Scholarly literature from multiple disciplines suggests that three key dimensions are particularly salient in understanding connections between volunteering and wellbeing. The first dimension is the significance and meaning that volunteers themselves attach to what they do. The extensive volunteering literature contains multiple theoretical and empirical perspectives on the core features of organisational volunteering, without considering how volunteers themselves might reconcile these tensions. The second dimension is the role that organisational expectations and messages about professionalism in particular play in shaping volunteer identity and practice and its relationship with wellbeing. Professionalism is usually framed as an attribute of paid work and hence as inconsistent with the volunteer role and the mission of nonprofit organisations more generally. The third dimension involves the connections between organisational volunteering and wellbeing as they are evident in nonprofit communities of practice, where wellbeing emerges from the collaborative relationships that volunteers develop. CoP scholarship tends to position collaboration as a component of “good” CoPs and conflict as negative. Accordingly, the objective of the thesis is to understand the meanings of volunteering as they are constructed by volunteers, shaped by understandings of professionalism embedded in core organisational codes of conduct, and enacted in communities of practice. Doing so will enable a close and comprehensive assessment of the connections and potential tensions between volunteering and wellbeing. In addition to advancing research on volunteering, the research has implications for three core organisational communication constructs: occupational and organisational identity, coordination and relationality. The study of the meanings, identities and practice of volunteering offers insight into how individuals manage multiple identity positions, especially in non-work settings, and how particular identities cue the ways in which relationality is enacted. The study of communities of practice in nonprofit contexts could also extend studies of coordination that explore how organisations attempt to control their members by focusing on meaningful participation. The thesis is structured around five research questions. First, I ask: what meanings do individuals engaged with voluntary organisations give to their volunteering? Second, in order to assess the impact of professionalism, I ask three questions: How do organisational codes of conduct construct professionalism for volunteers? How do these codes of conduct position the relationship between professionalism and wellbeing? How do volunteers relate organisational notions of professionalism to their own wellbeing? Finally, in order to understand the connections between organisational volunteering, relationships and wellbeing in practice, I ask: How do volunteers enact communities of practice? As a broad frame for the entire project, I employ a hybrid phenomenological perspective based around three key postulates: (1) individuals create meaning through intentional interaction with objects of experience; (2) we use both experience and context to understand a phenomenon; and (3) individual and group differences in how an object is experienced enrich our understanding of a phenomenon. The postulates suggest that, in order to understand the phenomenon of organisational volunteering, both a detailed account of volunteers’ experiences and an analysis of the organisational context in which volunteering occurs is required. Specifically, I analysed volunteering in three nonprofit organisations in New Zealand: Refugee Services, the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, and St John Ambulance. A total of 49 in-depth interviews were conducted with volunteers in all three organisations in order to answer questions about the meanings of volunteering, the impact of professionalism on wellbeing, and communities of practice. Additionally, I collected textual data in the form of reports, brochures, promotional materials and training manuals, as well as observational data to assess how codes of professional conduct were constructed in each organisation. Data were analysed for each of the three key dimensions of the volunteering-wellbeing relationship as follows. I used a phenomenological method of analysis adapted from the Duquesne School to unpack the meanings that volunteers gave to their experiences of volunteering. In order to develop emic understandings of professionalism within the nonprofit organisations in this study, I highlighted statements from organisational representatives and in organisational texts that discussed professionalism and clustered key elements into themes. In contrast, I applied an a priori coding method to address the last research question on communities of practice. Specifically, I adopted Lave and Wenger’s (1991) framework to analyse how volunteers used shared repertoire, mutual interaction and joint enterprise to create communities of practice, and I parsed these categories for evidence of both collaboration and conflict. The findings of this project have significant implications for research on volunteering. First, this study challenges uni-dimensional visions of volunteering found in both academic and popular literature as a free act. Instead, the data highlights the dual nature of volunteering, which is simultaneously agentic and deeply relational. Moreover, two distinct pathways, or ways of negotiating this duality, emerge. Volunteers on the freedom-reciprocity pathway move synchronically between agency and relationality, while those on the giving-obligation pathway shift diachronically from agency to relationality. Second, the study shows that codes of conduct regarding professionalism and its relationship with wellbeing are constructed differently across organisations. Further, participants in each organisation diverged in their responses to organisational notions of professionalism. One group enjoyed the structure and control afforded by professional standards, while the other group resisted professionalism as impersonal and negative for their wellbeing. Third, contestation and conflict were as prevalent as collaboration and cooperation in volunteer communities of practice in all three organisations. While it was clear that dissent was an important part of “well” volunteer communities, the expectation that volunteering would lead to wellbeing and collaborative relationships did influence volunteer retention and intentions to exit. These findings have implications for organisational communication research on identity, coordination and relationality, as well as theorising on nonprofit organising, in the form of three dialectical tensions. First, the study suggests that the process of identification is dynamic and dependent upon how volunteers manage the duality between agency and relationality inherent in volunteering. Second, the study offers an expansive view of what “collaborative” behaviour in communities of practice might entail, implicating both consensus and dissensus. Finally, the study demonstrates the key role that relationality plays, both in definitions of occupational identity as well as the construction of collaborative communities of practice.
Type of thesis
McAllum, K. L. (2012). Organisational volunteering: Meanings of volunteering, professionalism, volunteer communities of practice and wellbeing (Thesis, Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/6010
University of Waikato
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