Compassion in Volunteer Work: An Ethnography of a Befriending Organization

Vincett, Joanne; Wright, Alex and Lucas, Mike (2018). Compassion in Volunteer Work: An Ethnography of a Befriending Organization. In: 78th Annual Meeting of The Academy of Management, 10-14 Aug 2018, Chicago, Illinois, USA, Academy of Management.


This empirical paper offers an organizational ethnography of Yarl’s Wood Befrienders, a voluntary organization that provides emotional support to migrants and asylum seekers in a British immigration removal center through one-to-one social visits. With a complete membership approach, the ethnographer engaged in the field as a volunteer visitor, known as “befriender”, a trustee and former detainee to uncover rich insights on our guiding questions; “what do befrienders ‘do’? And, in what ways do befrienders practice compassion?” Through this approach we turn a critical lens upon volunteer work and highlight the neglected aspect of compassion. We derive and explicate three aspects of compassion in volunteer work: extreme uncertainty, emotion management and courage. Our main contribution to volunteer work theory is through articulating an enhanced understanding of compassion, which we discerned in an emotionally charged setting saturated with extreme uncertainty. We find that volunteering necessitating practices of compassion to alleviate the pain and suffering of others demands courage and emotion management. Our study illustrates how compassionate organizing can support the vulnerable and marginalized groups hidden in our society and how organizational research can engage in addressing social issues.

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