Research from Oxford Brookes University showcases parkrun’s success in engaging volunteers

A group of parkrun volunteers
Parkrun volunteers pose for a photograph. Picture: parkrun UK

The benefits of volunteering at a parkrun have been highlighted by an Oxford Brookes academic as a shining example of a non-profit organisation engaging with communities.

Dr Sarah Louise Mitchell, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Oxford Brookes Business School, asked people what motivates them to volunteer at parkrun, what they got out of volunteering and how they engaged with parkrun as an organisation. 

Dr Mitchell’s research paper ‘Reframing the practice of volunteering as a collective endeavour through a focal brand community’ was recently published in the European Journal of Marketing. 

Parkrun events are five kilometre timed runs that take place at 9am every Saturday morning in 2,000 locations in 22 countries across six continents. There are currently 1,218 parkruns in the UK with new locations being added all the time. Taking part in parkrun is free but requires a team of volunteers including marshalls, scanners for timing barcodes, and people to upload the results. 

Parkrun’s head office was so impressed with Dr Mitchell’s research they recently published a blog post highlighting the key findings.  The blog states: “The study found that parkrun volunteers feel they are part of a brand and community at three levels.

 ‘First, the big idea of parkrun felt like it was ‘on their wavelength’. Everyone who was interviewed knew about the parkrun brand and how the events are delivered.”

“The second point of connection was due to the feeling that parkrun events were ‘on their patch’, meaning that it was an integral part of the community in which they lived and that they could help their community through their parkrun contribution. 

“The third point of connection was the way in which they volunteered: the range of roles and flexible levels of commitment means that people can volunteer with parkrun ‘on their terms’.” 

The paper highlights the importance of the UK voluntary sector with latest data showing that three quarters of households in the UK had used the services of a non-profit organisation (2018). It explores how charities can market themselves to potential volunteers using parkrun as an example. 

Dr Mitchell chose to focus on parkrun as a ‘focal brand that resonates with people.’ She said: “With other volunteering commitments, people have to commit to one type of role, such as sales in a charity shop, and they have to agree how many hours/times a week they would volunteer which becomes difficult if their circumstances change or they go on holiday”. 

“Being able to choose your volunteering role at parkrun, for example choosing to be the tail walker or marshall, and being able to change role each time you do it, for example to be the person who uploads the results - and choose how much or little you volunteer works to break down the barriers to volunteering.  Parkrun really is a new way of thinking about volunteering. Everyone taking part knows the events wouldn’t happen or be free without the volunteers but there is no formal commitment or requirement. “I hope the findings of my research will be helpful to any non-profit organisation trying to recruit more volunteers to help deliver its services.”

Visit the parkrun website to learn more about taking part in and volunteering at a parkrun near you.