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By Matej Blazek, Newcastle University


Collaborating with community and voluntary organisation partners has become a common practice for many geographers, even though the precise nature of such partnerships may vary. For some, it is about research outputs that help inform the partner’s work, advocate for their cause, or influence other stakeholders such as policymakers. It could also stand for knowledge co-production, from working together on setting out research focus and methodology, through participation in data collection and analysis, to how the final outputs are shaped and disseminated. And for many, it is equally about the outputs and the process of research and includes mutual training, secondments or advisory work.

More commonly, geographers also adopt a dual role of a researcher and a volunteer. In addition to the forms of collaboration outlined above, taking on the role of a volunteer means undertaking activities and committing to responsibilities expected from all practitioners within the organisation. In other words, the researcher works for the organisation rather than with it, and their work is defined by the needs of the organisation or group rather by the nature of their research. What they do may become part of research fieldwork (e.g. in ethnographic projects), but it also may remain completely unrelated and irrelevant to the research focus. 

Taking on such a role may be driven by a multitude of motivations, but at the very heart is likely to be reciprocity. Researchers benefit from collaborating with community and voluntary organisations: they gain access to people, knowledge, events and spaces. Aside from the more established forms of giving back where researchers generate knowledge that can be of use for the partner, a contribution through volunteering is first and foremost about time, availability and generic skill. You may not benefit the organisation you are volunteering with through your research skills, but by giving of your time as a receptionist, driver, outreach worker, graphic designer, by helping with grant application or report writing, website management, or painting the offices, mopping floors and assembling furniture.

Why should community and volunteering organisations be interested in such a contribution? Quite often, academic researchers and third sector organisations are in an uneven position of power, privilege and resources. Voluntary organisations may be struggling with workload demands and if the time available to researchers as part of their research projects is generous enough, assigning it to address the direct needs of the organisation can become highly valuable. This is unlikely to be the case for most research projects, but it might be more easily facilitated for those with significant time allocation such as fellowships, PhD studies or where the university provides a significant amount of time for research.

The researcher-volunteering form of collaboration requires special attention to ethics. As academic researchers, our work in the field is guided by well-established frameworks and principles. Those may be very well relevant to your partner organisation, but your partner may also have a framework in place that includes additional requirements or poses challenges to academic ethics. In an ethnographic project where I took on a role of a detached youth worker in Slovakia, for instance, additional principles in the ethics code of my partner organisation included not sharing personal information such as phone number, requirements for chaperoning any independent contact with children on the street (i.e. always working in a pair with another youth worker) or a guide about communicating the departure from the field to the children gradually and over a longer period of time. On the other hand, the code advised against asking for written informed consent, given the confidential arrangement and anonymity offered to the young people involved with the organisation’s services.


Key points to consider when planning a researcher-volunteer project

  • Clarify what you want from your partner and why. Then listen to what they need and think carefully what you can offer. Be as flexible as possible but also honest about your time and resources. The volunteering element of partnership normally expects long-term and regular engagement that offsets the time and effort required from the community partner to provide training and supervision.

  • Adhere to the ethical and safety codes of your partner organisation. They know the day-to-day field contexts better than you do. If there is a conflict between their codes and your institutional requirements, raise those immediately with both and seek to find a reconciliation together.

  • Be focused but at the same time open in terms of your research interests. Research collaboration based on volunteering can provide invaluable material that would be otherwise inaccessible, but it is also likely to identify new questions and answers.


How to cite

Blazek, M. (2023) Volunteering with a community or voluntary organisation. Working with voluntary and community groups. Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Guide. Available at:


About this guide

Working with voluntary and community organisations for some is a very important way to do geography. These organisation come in various shapes and sizes and may also often be referred to as the third sector, the voluntary sector, not-for-profit organisations, community groups or the civic sector. In this guide, we share the experiences of researchers doing geography in collaboration with community and voluntary organisations. A range of topics and issues are explored from health, disability and care, through to austerity, violence, and craft, amongst others. We learn about the approaches taken by geographers in their work with community and voluntary organisations, and some of the challenges they have negotiated in the process. 


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