For development organisations working through volunteers, the need to measure and define our impact is nothing new. We have long sought to gain recognition for the significant and unique contribution volunteers make to sustainable development. Not just to celebrate their impact but also to recruit more volunteers and report to partners and donors.
In recent years there has been increased recognition within the development sector of the importance of sharing learning that arises from this evidence. This has coincided with a shift across the sector in how volunteers are perceived, both in terms of delivering sustainable development outcomes and in the design of programmes. A big driver of this change has been the sustainable development goals (SDGs), with the UN highlighting the crucial role that volunteers – particularly young volunteers – have to play in their achievement.
At Raleigh International we recognise the importance of evidencing the impact of our volunteering programmes to our teams and our partners, learning from our successes and failures is key so we can improve the quality and reach of our outcomes for the communities we work with. As we developed our new strategy, we wanted much clearer evidence of how our work through young volunteers can contribute to the delivery of the SDGs, especially the role of national youth volunteering in their own country.
However, there is very little robust, publicly-available evidence of the long-term impact of volunteering by young people in developing countries. Our alumni have always provided strong anecdotal evidence of the significant and lasting impact our volunteering programmes on their personal development, life choices and active citizenship – but we wanted to do more. As part of this we worked with the consultancy arm of the New Economics Foundation think tank, NEF Consulting, who carried out a pilot study – From Local Lives to Lasting Legacies – examining the long-term effect of our Expedition programme on volunteers in Namibia and China who took part in our programmes at least ten years previously.
At the heart of the research is a ‘Theory of Change’ (TOC) model, based on in-depth life story interviews with programme alumni, giving insight into the short- and longer-term outcomes for volunteers, as well as what enabled those changes over time. The five key long-term outcomes for volunteers were around increases in: volunteering and civic engagement; confidence and self-esteem; determination, courage and ability to solve problems; international perspective and cross-cultural awareness; and leadership skills. The analysis shows that volunteering has touched the lives of national volunteers on a personal level in a huge breadth of ways and in terms of wider active citizenship – but crucially that these changes were not only significant but sustained over time.
Researchers also conducted a pilot Social Cost-Benefit Analysis (SCBA) of the key outcomes which gives an indication the value for money delivered over time. The analysis shows a positive return on investment, with around £3 of long-term social benefit for every £1 invested in the programme. This is a significant return, particularly because of its sustained nature after 10-20 years, which doesn’t even consider the value to our main beneficiaries, the communities where we work.
The pilot study provides a useful first step in understanding and measuring the long-term changes that short-term (3 months) volunteering programmes can have for young people in developing countries and how these can contribute to delivering sustainable outcomes. It has also given us a framework that we can further develop and refine for volunteer measurement and to build internal programme capacity.
As well as identifying areas of learning for us as an organisation, the research puts forward recommendations for the wider development community in building the evidence base around the long-term impact of volunteering in developing countries:
The importance of managing an up-to-date database of volunteer contact details should not be underestimated. Good data allows organisational staff and research partners to deliver studies with greater representation across ex-volunteer cohorts, improving response rates for analysis and, in-turn, providing a greater depth of understanding about the long-term impact of volunteering.
Future research should ideally involve administering surveys to stakeholders (both volunteers and beneficiaries) to capture the changes, and potential magnitude of the comparisons, before and after their involvement in volunteering programmes.
Future studies should ideally include important outcomes which may not be common among all volunteers, as well as stakeholder engagement with, and analysis of, outcomes for community members and other stakeholders, such as project partners and volunteer staff. It would also be beneficial to explore the potential for wider societal impacts, including the impact on the next generation.
There would be value in development organisations who work with volunteers undertaking full Social Return on Investment (SROI) evaluations, at either a country or programmatic level, as part of their reporting and evaluation.
There is a particular need for more long-term, national volunteer studies. These should be seen as a shared responsibility for the wider development and volunteering sector, and developed through close collaboration and knowledge sharing amongst partners and consortiums.
By sharing the methodology and findings of this pilot we hope to make a positive contribution to the sparse body of available evidence. Hopefully others in the sector will begin to think about carrying out similar studies on the long-term developmental, socio-economic and personal impacts of volunteering within developing countries, which will ultimately improve how we as a sector allocate programme funds and improve the sustainability of our outcomes.
We’ve realised the significance for development of going beyond measuring and evaluating the time volunteers spend on placement and the work they do while volunteering. Volunteering is often a life changing experience which creates a sustainable culture of engagement which embeds itself beyond short term programmes. It changes how individuals go through their lives, modifying outlook, attitudes and levels of engagement. It helps to build national capacity in developing countries and creates networks of empowered individuals with the skills and desire to contribute and take on responsibility. We believe that this is key to creating a global community working towards a sustainable future, with young people at the heart as connected, valued partners in development.