Building research capacity for service and volunteering in SADC

By Rejoice Shumba [1]

Research on volunteering and civic service is a relatively new terrain, especially in Africa, and researchers and policy-makers often struggle to obtain relevant information. A lack of funding for research in this field makes things even more difficult.

It is in this context that VOSESA focused on the question of capacity for research as one of the areas of discussion in its workshop in Johannesburg from 14 to 16 March 2006.

The workshop was attended by delegates from various volunteer and research organisations, including IAVE (International Association for Volunteer Effort), UNDP (United Nations Development Progrmme), UNV (United Nations Volunteers), and the Cape Town Volunteer Centre.

Researchers from the Universities of Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe were key participants in the workshop. They presented the findings of their country studies that had contributed to VOSESA’s five-country study on civic service and volunteering in five SADC countries, namely Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The workshop also provided an opportunity to discuss methodological issues associated with the research and examined strategies for managing cross-national regional studies.

The workshop discussion generated the following suggestions for a way forward:

A regional research network

Networks are crucial for growing an organisation and for gathering information. It was suggested that closer networks should be established between volunteer and service organisations to encourage more information-sharing between the organisations.

University academics may be involved in research, but they are often isolated from researchers in other universities working in the same field, and from community-based organisations. Networks should therefore be established between university academics that have an interest in the field of civic service and volunteering. Contacts should also be strengthened between volunteer and service organisations, and researchers. Research organisations may benefit from alliances with programme implementers because they can submit proposals jointly and conduct research as an extension of aid programmes.

Funding strategies for research

The workshop explored funding challenges and strategies for sourcing funding for research on civic service and volunteering. A range of approaches to generating funds for research were discussed. Among them were partner support through small research grants, grants for information-sharing and knowledge-building events, and commissioned work. Dr Russell Ally (Director, Mott Foundation) briefed the workshop on approaches to funding, and how funding proposals should be developed in order to improve the chances of proposals for funding being accepted.

Dr Ally explained that people struggle to get funding because the funders are not sure what the project is about and those involved find it difficult to explain the project. He emphasised that a good project will get funding because funders have a prerogative to spend their money.

He advised that relevant funders should be approached, instead of randomly approaching funding organisations. It is important to approach an organisation that is interested in the projects that needs funding. It is equally important to model the proposal according to the interests of the funder. It is difficult to get funding for research projects, but research is critical, as it reflects what is going on in society.

A regional research agenda for service and volunteering

A research agenda was suggested for service and volunteering. It was agreed that it is important to establish the size and scope of the voluntary sector and service in all SADC countries through one or more quantitative studies.

Studies could also be done to find out the following:

  • the contribution of service and volunteering to national social development in SADC
  • the experience of volunteers and servers and the conditions under which they serve
  • the retention of servers and volunteers: the present situation and strategies for improvement
  • the role of incentives and their impact on the motivation of servers
  • attitudes towards servers among beneficiaries
  • critical success factors in the management of service programmes
  • institutionalising local community-based forms of service and what impact this has on the willingness of people to serve
  • the relationship between volunteering and future success in learning and work
  • the role of service in building democracy (service as an indicator of social cohesion and social engagement in society)

The monitoring and evaluation of service and volunteer programmes is important and the assessment of the impact made by volunteer and civic service policies and programmes was identified as being crucial.

Findings from VOSESA’s five-country research project have been published in a joint special issue of The Social Work Practitioner-Researcher and the Journal of Social Development in Africa. The special edition contains six articles based on the five-country study and can be accessed at

[1] Rejoice Shumba is the Project Coordinator at VOSESA.