Exploring Personal Communities: A Review of Volunteering Processes

Lead Research Organisation: Keele University
Department Name: Research Institute for Social Sciences


Throughout 20th century social theory, the rhetoric of 'community' has been used to index the warmth of immediacy, emotion and close relationships and has been contrasted to the cold rationality and instrumentality of modern work organizations, the state, and society. The rhetoric of community has been invoked by politicians and policy makers alike as the answer to all sorts of social, economic and political problems such as nationalism, social exclusion, unemployment, education, crime and poverty. Yet, however much time and money is spent on community initiatives, community remains elusive and its consequences unpredictable.

Critics argue that although community aims to bring unity and harmony, it simultaneously creates conflict and division over its membership, boundaries, norms and espoused values. Community has multiple and contested definitions and cannot be put to work according to some top down political agendas. Indeed, the myriad of ways in which community unfolds in practice calls for a 'bottom-up' approach that recognises the paradoxes built into community rhetoric, the frequent lack of consensus and is sensitive to individual and social needs in equal measure.

The ambiguous nature of community, along with the rise of individualism and consumerism in Western societies and beyond, has called into question existing conceptualisations of community and called for a more imaginative way to engage with community rhetoric at the level of practice. 'Personal communities' feature prominently in this strand of literature as a type of community that is self-chosen and individuated, thriving on inter-personal ties and providing support for its members. Although portrayed as an 'individual achievement', personal communities go beyond friendship ties and charity work, having a powerful sociality hidden in them, one that if released could have a major impact on society. We explore personal communities through the lens of volunteering in order to shed light on the ways in which individuals experience one another and adjust to one another within and across communities. By applying the concept of personal community to the public context of volunteering, we hope to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of how communities actually work to accommodate diversity, exclusion and cohesion simultaneously.

The review evaluates the contribution of the personal community to sustaining and enhancing the quality of life of individuals in their local communities where such volunteering processes take place. We aim to explore the idea that personal communities contribute to the common good of the society in terms of offering ways for negotiating individual and collective identity via individual engagement with democratic social processes. This will be achieved not merely by analysing existing written work but more importantly by engaging with volunteering communities from the Stoke-on-Trent area. We will work in close collaboration with the New Vic Borderlines, the nationally acclaimed community programme of the New Vic Theatre, to develop a series of activities aimed at documenting in an artistic way the experience of being a volunteer, creating a new community of volunteers via a theatre residential and putting on a volunteering performance by the volunteers themselves. These volunteers will be drawn from local schemes that aim at helping marginalised individuals and groups to acquire new skills and make a positive contribution to the society.

Stoke-on-Trent is an example of a community in post-industrial decline which relies heavily on volunteers to support many of its economic, social and cultural activities. We will offer the community of Stoke-on-Trent an opportunity to engage with our theory review and provide a two way knowledge transfer opportunity with the view to contribute in a meaningful way to debates about the economic, social and cultural possibilities for Stoke-on-Trent.

Planned Impact

Our overall aim is to make a difference to the quality of life for the community of Stoke-on-Trent. We will review our Pathways to Impact throughout the review process, refining our ideas as the key themes emerge and become more nuanced. Some expected areas of impact are:

- Inform best practice guidelines for practitioners and organisations who rely on volunteers
- Contribute to local debates about regeneration by providing a forum for volunteers to discuss and reflect on personal communities
- Enhance the quality of life of communities by highlighting the well being benefits of volunteering
- Contribute to public policy debates on the 'third sector' at a local, regional and national level

Stoke-on-Trent is an example of a community in post-industrial decline. The figures for unemployment, economic inactivity and recipients of Job Seeker's Allowance (JSA) are all above the average for Great Britain, while qualifications and earnings by residence are below the national average (NOMIS, 2011). As a recent report suggests, Stoke-on-Trent is a deprived area and the combination of low wages, unemployment, education levels and poor health means that it is particularly vulnerable given the current programme of cuts to city council budgets (CAB, 2011). The region relies heavily on volunteers to support many of its economic, social and cultural activities, so it makes sense to make the area a specific focus of our impact activities.

We are particularly interested in community-based organisations (CBOs), which can be defined as very small, local groups who address specific areas in the community and who do not have a regional or national remit. Our interest in CBOs is explicitly linked to our overall aim of exploring the concept of personal communities as a connector across discourses of individualism and communitarianism. Drawing on our local CBO network, therefore, there are two groups of immediate stakeholders who will benefit from this research. These are the local volunteers and (paid) practitioners who routinely work with volunteers as part of their employment (for example, museum and theatre staff). Based on our existing contacts, this will include volunteers and practitioners from the New Vic Borderlines, The Volunteer Experience @ Keele, the Stoke-on-Trent Museums (including the Ripping Yarns Group), the Citizen Advice Bureau Stoke-on-Trent, ELITE, (Stoke-on-Trent) and the Etruria Boat Group volunteers. In collaboration with the New Vic Borderlines, we will develop a three-phase event involving eight groups of volunteers from across the area of Stoke-on-Trent. Phase 1 will comprise a series of interactive experiences to establish 'The volunteer story'. Phase 2 (The Theatre Residential) will create 'The Connected Communities Volunteer Company' comprising volunteers who took part in Phase 1. They will stage a documentary drama (Phase 3) to be performed in the Workshop for volunteers and practitioners at the New Vic Theatre in September 2012. This workshop will combine dissemination with more proactive aspects in order to generate ideas for translating the review's key theoretical themes into best practice for each volunteer group, develop creative responses to regeneration, as well as future empirical research and opportunities for further impact.

We will contribute to policy debates by identifying and engaging with potential users and beneficiaries throughout the review process. These groups include, but are not limited to, other local, regional and national volunteer groups (such as CSV, Timebank, Volunteering England), advocacy groups (such as The National Council for Voluntary Organisations and CSV), research groups (such as the Institute for Volunteering Research and the Institute for Voluntary Action Research), Government committees and task forces, and experienced community lobbyists who will help us develop policy guidelines.


10 25 50
Title 'A Little Act of Kindness': Documentary drama on personal communities and volunteering 
Description The drama was performed at the New Vic Theatre in October 2012 and then at the AHRC Connected Communities Showcase in London, March 2013. The AHRC filmed the latter event, which consisted of a theoretical presentation on the role of volunteering in the creation of personal communities, the actual drama performance and questions and answers from the audience. See youtube link below http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QsosP821t0 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2013 
Impact https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QsosP821t0 
Title A Bright Future for Stoke on Trent Exhibition 
Description This CASIC installation was part of the 'Back to the drawing board' exhibition and ran from November 23rd until January 16th. The installation contained a projection of Peter Rice's mural, Bridgewater artefacts, ordinary day to day objects, empty frames, voice overs and musical documentaries made by diverse communities which took part in previous CASIC research projects. Using Cultural Animation techniques of community engagement and knowledge co-production pioneered in the UK by Sue Moffat, Founding Director of New Vic Borderlines and developed further via the Connected Communities research, participants were encouraged to create and visualise a bright future for Stoke on Trent by filling empty frames with their own ideas and aspirations, drawing themselves in the projection, imagining conversations that will take place in the future, and writing haikus and cinquans about their aspirations, wishes and ambitions for Stoke on Trent. This living and interactive installation acted as a bridge between past, present and future and as a boundary object that can unite communities around ideas about the future. On November, 23rd, a steady stream of community members, students and staff came to visit the CASIC installation and take part in interactive workshops. Four theatre practitioners from the New Vic Boderlines encouraged participants to paint tea towels in the Pat Albeck's tradition, write haikus about their relationship with Stoke on Trent and put themselves in the projection of a mural by Peter Rice entitled 'A Bright Past for Stoke-on-Trent'. The discussions about Stoke and its impact on one's individual and collective identity have been fascinating. The created artifacts have been added to the installation and captured in picture and video form. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Change of views regarding the past and present of Stoke on Trent Community members joining the Community Animation and Social Innovation centre 
URL https://www.keele.ac.uk/casic/pastevents/
Description The project investigates the idea that personal communities contribute to the public good by offering ways to transcend commonplace dualisms such as public/private and individual/collective. The aim of the review is to explore the personal community through the lens of volunteering in order to shed light on the ways in which individuals experience and adjust to one another within and across communities.
Exploitation Route This Connected Communities discussion paper has been circulated to advocacy and support organisations in the voluntary sector in Staffordshire in order to continue the discussion about the meaning of volunteering in today's society. A new module on not-for-profit modes of organising is also being developed to deliver to undergraduate students in Keele University.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education

URL http://www.keele.ac.uk/media/keeleuniversity/ri/risocsci/events/exploringpersonalcommunities/CC%20Exploring%20personal%20communities.pdf
Description The findings of this grant have been fed into the 'Untold Stories of Volunteering' project which is continuing to make an impact on organisations who rely on volunteers and on the volunteers themselves.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal

Description 'A little act of kindness': a drama performance of grass root stories of volunteering
Amount £14,356 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2013 
End 03/2013
Description Connected Communities Cardiff Festival
Amount £16,000 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2014 
End 03/2015
Description Connected Communities Festival 2015
Amount £13,000 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2015 
End 12/2015
Description I am my dignity: A Moral Capability Assessment Tool (MCAT) for women's rights in fragile contexts
Amount £135,000 (GBP)
Organisation United Kingdom Research and Innovation 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 12/2020 
End 07/2021
Description Scale and growth Award
Amount £7,000 (GBP)
Organisation NIHR/HEFCE Higher Education Fund for England 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2015 
End 03/2016
Title Cultural Animation 
Description • draws on the everyday experiences of people and their creative abilities to make sense of the world • builds up trusting relationships between participants by inviting them to work together in activities which may be new to them but which rely on their life experiences • when people move about and complete tasks together, it facilitates new ways of seeing and thinking • boundary objects (everyday objects) are central to the collaboration and communication between academics, medical practitioners and members of the public • common sense, academic expertise and practical skills are valued in equal measure • knowledge and experiences are articulated in actions, images, installations as well as via the written word • the cultural animateur acts as a facilitator • pioneered in the UK by New Vic Borderlines and the Community Animation and Social Innovation Centre at Keele University 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Cultural animation provides a route to co-produce research agendas, empowers the public to engage actively with health professionals/academics/policy makers and make a positive contribution to their community. 
URL https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0377221717310779
Description Creative Collaboration on human rights and dignity in fragile contexts 
Organisation Ateneo de Manila University
Country Philippines 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The collaboration led to securing a University of Nottingham GCRF grant in 2020. My team will be creating an innovative Moral Capability Assessment Tool (MCAT) by digitalising the methodology of Cultural Animation and training local community organisers to how to use it in the ethnic Muslim and indigenous enclaves of Mindanao (Philippines), where deadly and destructive civil strife and massive civilian displacements have been breaking on and off for the last 50 years. Earthquakes, flooding, typhoons and disease outbreaks are worsening the impact of conflict-induced under-development. This dis-proportionally affects women, opening the road to a normalisation process of rights-abuse and to modern forms of slavery. MCAT i) sheds sheds light on how women (beneficiary 1) are engaged as agents of their own rights and development and ii) designs context-sensitive preventative & resilience building measures to be delivered by development actors (beneficiary 2) based on considerations of moral capability and agency.
Collaborator Contribution Our partner will be testing the MCAT tool in Mindanao, and co-produce cultural artifacts with fringe and other relevant stakeholders in Mindenao.
Impact This collaboration is multi-disciplinary: sociology, consumption studies, human rights, visual arts, community studies and theatre studies A website and a training package are currently being developped
Start Year 2018
Description The International Federation of the Red Crosses and Cresents 
Organisation International Federation of Red Cross and Crescents
Country Switzerland 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Working together towards developing their learning strategy platform
Collaborator Contribution We held a series of Skype meetings and introduced our Cultural Animation methodology to their annual learning conference in Madrid.
Impact This collaboration is at an early stage and it is likely to result in applying for follow on funding.
Start Year 2017