Opinion
13.03.2020

The sharing economy is thriving, but the work of volunteers is often overlooked

Good communication and recognition are key to volunteer retention, write Johanna Mair and co-author.

By Johanna Mair and Julia Kristin Göhringer

Airbnb’s open homes program aims to create a social impact by connecting hosts with refugees to support their integration. Uber claims that its car sharing makes cities cleaner. Whether and how the sharing economy helps to advance the agenda around sustainability and to address contemporary societal challenges has stirred important and often heated debates. For many the sharing economy stands for deteriorating labour standards. What comes short in such conversations is that especially non-profit sharing economy organisations rely on non-paid – volunteer – work to operate. In this article, we assess the social aspects of sharing economy organisations through the lens of people who participate in a sharing economy as volunteers.

We argue that volunteering work merits more attention in the debate around the impact of the sharing economy. Volunteers in the sharing economy usually receive no remuneration and therefore their contribution to the organisation but also society is easily overlooked. Also, while traditional volunteering is in decline, volunteer work in the sharing economy seems to thrive. For example, mobilising volunteers in the space of humanitarian aid has become a challenge over the past decades but the number of repair cafés, a popular form of non-profit sharing economy organisation run by volunteers, has rapidly increased to 1,500 since the launch of the first initiatives in 2016.

Over the last year, we interviewed sharing economy organisations and their volunteers in Germany. We found that volunteers matter for the success of these organisations because they share resources and qualities while keeping the organisations’ mission and community alive.

Which sharing economy organisations work with volunteers?

Not all sharing economy organisations rely on volunteers to create value. In our research project in Germany we find it useful to distinguish between two business models in the sharing economy. In the platform business model a digital platform supports the access to services or goods through which for-profit organisations seek to provide an experience with a social impact or a life-style experience against payment. Organisations with a grassroots business model focus on social and ecologic goals at the local level. Communal living organisations and gardens as well as repair cafés seek to improve the everyday life of people in their community by offering joint activities, access to education and help. Food sharing and car sharing organisations fight food waste and reduce traffic. Organised as non-profit organisations, among other forms of support, they rely on the intrinsic motivation of volunteers and the common values and norms they share.

Oftentimes they are places with a critical and alternative way of thinking, aiming to reorganise the economy and striving for political changes and a transformation of society towards more ecology and social justice. Organisational processes build on a small circle of individuals leading the coordination and management but the limited availability of volunteers, their commitment and their skills require organisational flexibility and informality.

Sharing economy organisations are not equally distributed. In our research project we found that sharing economy organisations cluster around major urban areas in Germany. Yet, non-profit initiatives in particular fields of activity (community-supported agriculture, car sharing) counter the trend and increasingly operate in rural areas.

Who are the volunteers and what do they share?

Our interviews revealed that volunteers in the sharing economy typically associate themselves with the idea of sharing, regularly spend time volunteering, have an interest in community and are open for an alternative or critical way of thinking. Additionally, volunteers in the sharing organisations we interviewed are rather older.

What are the resources volunteers share in their volunteering work?

We found that volunteering in the sharing economy is based on sharing time, skills and knowledge. First, volunteers in organisations we interviewed dedicate quite some time to community work. Some of them view volunteering as an activity in addition to a paid job or thereafter. Occasionally, they spend so much time that their organisation is encouraging them to volunteer during limited hours in order to protect them from overload. Second, volunteers frequently contribute social skills, such as empathy and lifeblood. Third, knowledge is a very valuable resource. For instance, repair cafés and bartering circles depend on technical knowledge of their volunteers and sharing economy organisations also welcome volunteers with work experience, like having a routine in making phone calls.

How to keep volunteers?

Volunteers are vital for sharing economy organisations because they are often run entirely by volunteers or they expand their pool of resources. They are critical for creating value and for creating a sense of community. How do sharing economy organisations retain volunteers? First, communication is key. Continuous communication and feedback involve answering questions and discussing concerns or problems. Second, festivities and joint events are further popular ways during which sharing economy organisations demonstrate their recognition of volunteer work. All of these activities underline the importance of the organisations’ community.

What can other organisations learn from this in terms of mobilising volunteers?

As one interviewee remarked, leading volunteers is the fine art of human resources management. Contrary to paid staff, management cannot exert pressure on its volunteers. What begins with their appropriate selection continues with the right way of retention. It seems to be worthwhile for organisations to recognise that volunteers differ in terms of time constraints, commitment and talents while maintaining a close connection to them.

 

Op-ed orignally published in the London School of Economics and Political Science blog.

More about Johanna Mair

  • Johanna Mair , Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership