Celebrating 25 years of studying the history of voluntary action: VAHS’s Conference 2016

Colin Rochester first published the following blog detailing next year’s conference on HistPhil.org, a web publication  on the history of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, with a particular emphasis on how history can shed light on contemporary philanthropic issues and practice.

In the summer of 1991 three people who conducted research on the UK voluntary sector and volunteering as well as working in voluntary organisations met at the Coach and Horses, a well-known public house in London’s Soho. After spending months complaining among themselves about the ignorance and lack of interest of people who worked in the sector when it came to the history of the organisations for which they worked – let alone of voluntary action more generally – they decided to do something about. What they did was what many people had done before them and many others would do after them; they set up a voluntary organisation to address the issue.

The need was summarised by one of the founders:

People who work in and with voluntary organisations and those who study them are remarkably insouciant about the history of voluntary action. Individual organisations are careless of their archives consigning their records to damp cellars or carting them off to land fill in skips. If they do show some interest in their past this takes the form of ‘cherry-picking’ their history to provide selected images, incidents and personalities with which to add sparkle to their promotional and fund-raising materials rather than a serious attempt to understand the concerns and the external forces that shaped both their founding mission and the ways in which it has been adapted to changing circumstances. From a wider perspective, the debates about social and public policy and the growing role to be played in it by voluntary agencies have been curiously deracinated. As a result the discussion has been largely uninformed by any understanding of the historical experience which has formed today’s institutions and relationships while any lessons from the past have been left unlearned. (Rochester, 2013; 15)

In its attempts to challenge the sector’s indifference to its own history the Voluntary Action History Society (or VAHS) has run a great many seminars, organised five international conferences and published two books of essays in an attempt to ensure that the activities of those making policy that impinges on voluntary action and those working in and with voluntary organisations are informed by what has gone before.

Today, nearly twenty-five years since its foundation, VAHS continues to promote the study of the history of charity, philanthropy, mutual aid, volunteering and voluntary organisations and has a healthy membership which combines academics and voluntary sector practitioners. In July 2016 it plans to celebrate its silver jubilee year by organising its 6th international conference on the history of voluntary action. This will take place at the University of Liverpool from 13th-15th July.

The theme of the conference is THINKING ABOUT THE PAST, THINKING ABOUT THE FUTURE It will feature papers which are accessible to a broad audience of practitioners, activists, amateurs and academics and provide insights into the development of voluntary action history in the past twenty-five years and address the challenges it faces in the future.

Within that framework there will be a great deal of diversity. We are looking for papers that:

  • approach voluntary action history from a variety of perspectives – local, national and international or transnational;
  • explore subjects in a range of time periods, from the Middle Ages (or earlier) to the near-history of the twenty-first century; and
  • are based on different methodologies, both traditional and innovative.

And we expect to receive proposals that focus on very different topics. These may include new research on time-honoured themes like philanthropy, mutual aid and self-help; the moving frontier between state and voluntary action; social justice and social change; and organisational development and management. Or they will address comparatively neglected areas of voluntary action history such as bad behaviour and the dark side of volunteering and voluntary organisation or the historical role of voluntary action in leisure activities and expressive behaviours. And we also expect contributions on teaching voluntary action history and issues of preservation and access associated with archival research.

We also welcome contributions from ‘new researchers’ – graduate students, postdoctoral researchers (within 3 years of degree) or unpublished independent researchers – and will be offering a prize for the best paper submitted by people in this category.

This rich and varied diet of papers will provide the main core of the conference activities but it will be supplemented by other activities. These include a plenary session addressed by a prominent speaker (details yet to be confirmed); visits and tours to local places of interest to the history of voluntarism; a conference dinner; a quiz; and other opportunities for social and convivial interaction. We will even have the Society’s house band – Home Brew – to provide its own brand of good time jazz.

If you are interested in taking part in the conference or want further information about it please contact the VAHS Chair, Meta Zimmeck at meta@practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk

If you would like to propose a paper, please submit an abstract of around 300 words and a brief biography by e-mail to Meta no later than 31 December 2015.

We will be happy to consider proposals for panels of up to four papers on a similar subject, although if this is your intention, please submit an abstract for each of the proposed papers.

If you have any queries or if you wish to discuss a proposed paper’s suitability, please e-mail Meta Zimmeck at meta@practicalwisdomr2z.co.uk

Booking will open once the programme is finalised. Please note that all speakers must register for the conference.

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