Kristiina Kumpula: Expertise through volunteering

Just under 10,000 friends of the Finnish Red Cross traditionally celebrate Valentine’s Day by highlighting the theme of loneliness and inviting new friends to join the activities. This year, more than 1,200 new volunteers signed up to help alleviate loneliness.

Loneliness did not appear on the agenda of Red Cross volunteers by accident; rather, they identified the need to tackle this issue when they saw that loneliness affects the elderly, then discovered that it also affects young people and eventually realised that loneliness does not respect age or social class. The volunteers draw meaning from their work, and its impact is supported by everyday observations.

Research, particularly in the last decade, has confirmed the significance of everyday observations. Loneliness has a comprehensive impact on people’s quality of life, sense of wellbeing and health. Plain and simple meetings with people can prove life-saving. Research results and impact assessment provide a new direction for doing things and help us find new means to reach those in need. Civic initiatives can offer explanations and responses to social phenomena, but a combination of civic activity and research helps to identify the underlying social structures and processes. Understanding social structures equips us to create new structures and processes that promote people’s welfare.

Research on wellbeing has also explored the helpers, finding that volunteers and benefactors are motivated not only by altruism, but by a multitude of other reasons, such as the need to overcome their own loneliness, the desire to learn and network with others, or a sense of social responsibility. In other words, by helping others you are contributing to your own wellbeing. The helper becomes the helped. It follows that volunteering today focuses on meaning and values rather than organisations and structures. Research on self-direction, community and values supports the model of a future civil society. The development of such models is seamlessly linked to research on participation, democracy and active citizenship.

Complex and extensive scientific research on the resilience, flexibility and endurance of communities brings the Red Cross back to its basic mission. What is the role of civic activity in enhancing people’s skills, abilities and endurance? What skills and tools are necessary for the preparedness and participation of communities?

From the perspective of international disaster relief, resilience is a fundamental issue. In the best-case scenario, we can send aid to a disaster-affected area in a few days. But the initial response depends on the skills and resources of locals, with later aid at its best supplementing it. How can the strengthening of resilience improve the survival of communities and decrease their dependence on external aid?

Here, NGO activities provide an interesting opportunity for the academic community. Applying research results in civil society means testing them and assessing their usefulness.  But it could mean more. The University should establish a stronger connection with its surrounding environment so that the enormous amount of information about people’s lives, experiences and learning obtained from the activities of NGOs and volunteers could be systematically used as research data in the human sciences. At present, such information is mostly only collected for annual reports and funders. The Red Cross and other civil society bodies are treasure troves of information because they often have access to information out of reach from public authorities and created through daily joint activities. NGOs are surprisingly well-networked, carefully coordinated and professionally supported. They use the latest technologies to manage their operations, collect information and provide support.

The application of research findings and other scientific results is occasionally laborious, but at its best it can help address the challenges faced. Systematically collected information can offer new research topics and help resolve ongoing issues.

Civil society bodies and researchers can establish new types of partnerships and cooperation, particularly as they attempt to resolve complex social problems. Working with people on a range of issues and phenomena provides staff and volunteers with unique knowledge that incorporates experience, everyday encounters and research-based information into broad expertise. Such expertise is built on the knowledge provided by the scientific community as well as professional, local and organisational skills. It focuses on solutions and responds flexibly to emerging needs. For science and research, this expertise provides another perspective and another type of knowledge that can help bridge the gap between civil society and the academic community.

Kristiina Kumpula is the Secretary General of the Finnish Red Cross

In the series Science Advocates, people describe the significance of research and research-based teaching for themselves. Read the other instalments on the Researchmatters website (scroll down).