Exploring personal communities: a review of volunteering processes

Exploring Personal Communities

A project funded by AHRC under the Connecting Communities initiative.
Exploring personal communities: Online discussion paper

Keele Institute for Social Inclusion (KISI) brings together over 170 academic staff and over 200 postgraduate students working across a range of social science disciplines. Staff and research students are grouped within Research Centres, these providing a focus for seminars, grant activity, support to PGRs, and research support and supervision.

New Vic Borderlines is the New Vic theatre’s nationally acclaimed programme delivered by highly skilled practitioners engaging with the community and a range of partners, creating positive solutions, challenging negative behaviours, attitudes and actions and developing new and aspirational futures.

Partners include: Community and Voluntary groups, Youth and Community Services, County Council Departments, Crown Prosecution Service, Police, Probation and Youth Offending Services and statutory and voluntary sector organisations.

They have received many national awards including 2 Global Ethics Awards, a prestigious Clarion Award and a national British Crime Concern award for reducing offending behaviour. Their work is inspired by the social agenda and the belief that communities can create dynamic and positive relationships, imaginative and generous solutions and take on roles and responsibilities.

Recent work with the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, brought about a touring play with workshops called ‘All Our Daughters?’ about Forced Marriage. Reaching 8000+ beneficiaries it’s described by the Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal as “Saving Lives”.


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[1]. 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[2]. 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[3].

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. This is abductive in the sense that we will treat the ambiguity built into the rhetoric of community as a positive, generative force and we will be drawing hunches from engaging with volunteers in the local community to pursue certain avenues of investigation but not others. The concept of ‘personal communities’ should therefore be of interest to the groups we are targeting given our existing relations with them and previous participation in activities organised at Keele. Keele University sees volunteering as central to student experience and employability: see Student Volunteering Strategy and Programme.

[1] NOMIS (2011) ‘Labour Market Profile Stoke on Trent’
[2] CAB Stoke-on-Trent (2011) ‘Making Welfare Work for Stoke on Trent’, accessed 8 Nov 2011
[3] IVR (2008) ‘The impact of public policy on volunteering in community-based organisations’, accessed 13 Nov 2011

The aim of the project 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. It aims to give individuals and communities in Stoke-on-Trent an opportunity to engage with the findings of our literature review in order to reflect on their own experiences and imagine/design new agendas that could make a difference to the quality of their life.

There are six objectives:

  1. Define personal community: for example, to what extent is the personal community different from friendship and charity?
  2. Establish the central role of volunteering in the making of personal communities;
  3. Understand the rationale of volunteering: for example, why do people volunteer in the current context of heightened individualism and consumerism?
  4. Explore the unfolding of volunteering work and the impact it has on individual volunteers by reviewing volunteering processes;
  5. Provide a critique of managerialist accounts of managing the voluntary sector in order to offer a more nuanced understanding of volunteering as a way of negotiating issues of community identity, diversity exclusion and cohesion;
  6. Document the social outcomes of personal communities: how does volunteering contribute to the greater good of the community and overall society in terms of well being?
  • Professor Mihaela Kelemen
  • Dr Anita Mangan
  • Sue Moffat, Director of New Vic Borderlines

14 February to 13 November 2012

Further to the literature reviews on community, friendship, charity, volunteering and well being conducted by Professor Kelemen and Dr. Mangan, New Vic Borderlines will develop a three-phase event involving eight groups of volunteers from across the area (including their own volunteers). Phase 1 (Establishing the Volunteering Story) will comprise a series of interactive experiences to establish the volunteer story, including how people became involved in volunteering (was it entirely free-will or was some form of coercion or persuasion involved?). Phase 2 (The Theatre Residential) will establish a new group of volunteers ‘The Connected Communities Volunteer Company’ formed with volunteers from the Phase 1 interactive workshops. This group will create a documentary performance to be held at the New Vic as part of an event for Volunteers and Practitioners (Phase 3).

Our work adopts an approach that allows us to combine our existing experience as volunteers in the community, our academic experience as critical management scholars and reflections on volunteering as performed by volunteers in the three stage event organised by Sue Moffat, Director of New Vic Borderlines, Newcastle-under-Lyme. Our overall aim is to make a difference to the quality of life for the community of Stoke-on-Trent. 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