New Research Project by IRS and neuland21 How Digital is Rural Volunteering?

Not only since the COVID 19 pandemic, but even more so as a result of it, digitisation is considered a central development factor for rural areas. Rural civil society and its voluntary commitment are increasingly coming into focus of research on digitalisation: The voluntary sector’s effectiveness is potentially greatly expandes by digital tools. However, there is hardly any data on the extent to which voluntary engagement in rural areas is already digitised. A new project of the IRS in cooperation with neuland21 is filling this gap.

Not only since the COVID 19 pandemic, but even more so as a result of it, digitisation is considered a central development factor for rural areas. Rural civil society and its voluntary commitment are increasingly coming into focus of research on digitalisation: The voluntary sector’s effectiveness is potentially greatly expandes by digital tools. However, there is hardly any data on the extent to which voluntary engagement in rural areas is already digitised. A new project of the IRS in cooperation with neuland21 is filling this gap.

Since 2015, the department “Dynamics of Communication, Knowledge and Spatial Development” has been researching how social innovations are driven in rural areas, what problems they solve and how they can be supported politically. The lead project “Smart Villagers” has analysed how digitalisation steps and social innovations interact (see also IRS aktuell 94, p. 15: "Digital solutions for peripheral villages"). Across all the cases considered, it is evident that social innovations and digitisation projects in rural regions often happen bottom-up. They frequently unfold in the area of voluntary work or are driven forward by volunteers. Often, these digitally supported social-innovative initiatives are politically desired and supported by public funds.

In recent years, there has been an increase in campaigns to support the digitalisation of volunteering. In the course of the COVID 19 pandemic, the need for digital tools and the associated knowledge became particularly clear. At the same time, however, campaigning and funding practice for the digitisation of engagement in rural areas seems to be running ahead of an inventory of the same: systematic findings on the use of digital tools and practices in volunteering in Germany are hardly available so far. Both in practice and in academia, a differentiated and evidence-based view of rural areas, particularly with regard to the topic of digitisation of rural volunteering, is still lacking. Research on this is still in its infancy.

The research department therefore began work on the new research project “Between Appstore and Register of Associations - Rural Volunteerism on the Way to the Digital Age”, or “AppVeL” for short, in May 2021 under the leadership of Ariane Sept and together with the think and do tank neuland21. The project aims to create an up-to-date picture of the use and handling of digital technologies in voluntary work in Germany with a focus on rural areas - differentiated according to types of area, organisation profiles and age structure of those involved. Based on this, the project team will make a well-founded assessment of the opportunities and risks of using technology in rural voluntary work. Although the advantages of digitalisation for voluntary work, especially in rural areas, are repeatedly emphasised in politics and civil society - not least against the background of intensified digitalisation debates in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic - there is hardly any systematic knowledge about the actual spread of digital technologies in rural voluntary work. These include digital communication and project management tools, social media and apps.

With the help of an online survey of voluntary organisations as well as expert and in-depth interviews, the project investigates (1) to what extent and in what way digitalisation has found its way into voluntary work, (2) whether and to what extent spatial, organisational or other differences in the dissemination and use of digital technologies can be identified, (3) what opportunities and risks digital technologies offer for the further development of rural volunteering, (4) what support needs exist in the context of the digitalisation of volunteering, and (5) what role civil society-based engagement plays for digitalisation in rural areas. Against the background of the findings that rural development is particularly often driven by volunteers, answering these questions is also important for innovative and public welfare-oriented rural development with a view to strengthening equal living conditions.
Initial studies suggest that the level of digitisation and also the experience in using digital applications varies greatly depending on the type of space, organisational profile and age structure. Barriers in the use of digital technologies due to insufficient technical knowledge are also still reported. The current restrictions on face-to-face meetings and gatherings have recently given the whole issue a new momentum, highlighting both advantages and disadvantages of numerous digital applications that have seen increased use during the crisis. Village associations or municipal councils have meanwhile often had positive experiences with digital meetings, but the supply of technical devices for all participants often takes place via personal networks or informal lending structures. It also became apparent, for example, that the often existing need for support and training requires personal contact.
In the practice of voluntary engagement, the topic of digitalisation gained importance even before the COVID 19 pandemic. The third “Engagementbericht” (engagement report) of the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), which was commissioned in 2018 and presented in 2020, focused on “young engagement in the digital age” from the very beginning. The report (p. 24) states that in general "two different approaches and ways of dealing with digitalisation in the engagement sector can be identified: One part of the organisations perceives digitalisation as a challenge that is difficult to grasp, another part is already actively implementing the potentials of a public good-oriented digitalisation". The report describes five types of engagement organisations with regard to digitisation: the “actively forward-thinking”, the “energetically mediating”, the “resourcefully shaping”, the “pragmatically using” and the “cautiously sceptical”. The cautiously sceptical are mainly associations, which "usually work on a regional level"
(p. 23 of the report). It can be assumed that a significant number of these are associations in rural areas.

Current initiatives by civil society actors are also increasingly addressing the potential of digitalisation for voluntary engagement. Examples include the “Forum Digitalisierung und Engagement” (Forum Digitalisation and Engagement) launched by the Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement (Federal Network for Civic Engagement) in November 2019, the Caritas campaign 2019 “Sozial braucht digital” (Social needs Digital) and the funding campaign “digital.engagiert” (digitally engaged) of the Stifterverband. The first funding programmes of the Deutsche Stiftung für Ehrenamt und Engagement (German Foundation for Volunteering and Involvement), which was founded in March 2020, also indicate that the foundation sees the promotion of online services and digital infrastructures as essential for the work of voluntary institutions in general and in rural areas in particular and wants to strengthen them accordingly. The foundation also plans to develop educational offers for volunteers on digitalisation in voluntary work, although it is still unclear which specific needs are to be met.
In the AppVeL research project, the IRS cooperates closely with neuland21. In doing so, the different competences and networks of the two partner organisations are bundled in a targeted way: While the project participants at the IRS communicate primarily to the scientific academic community, neuland21 addresses the practice community in particular and will also produce practice-oriented educational materials from the project. AppVel is funded by the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) from the Federal Programme for Rural Development (BULE). It is a community of eleven BULE-funded research projects that conduct research throughout Germany on the topic of "Voluntary Engagement in Rural Areas".

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Deputy Head of Department
Research Associate

Peter Ulrich is a research associate in the research department “Institutional Change and Regional Public Goods” of the IRS. Since September 2019 he has been working in the context of third-party funded research projects. Until the end of 2020, Peter Ulrich worked on the research project “region4.0” funded by the “WIR! – Wandel durch Innovation in der Region” programme of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In the project alliance, Peter Ulrich was concerned with conducting a sub-project on innovation environment and governance (“Innovationsumfeld und Governance”). Since October 2020, he works as a research associate within the project "Energy Transition in Social Space" ("Energiewende im sozialen Raum") funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

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Research Associate

Since February 2018 Julia Stadermann has been working as a research associate for the project “Open Region: Regional problem situations as starting points for innovation processes” which is conducted by the department “Dynamics of Economic Spaces“.

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