Volunteering and the recession

The coalition government’s agenda of severe public spending cuts and building the ‘Big Society’ demand a greater role for volunteers in public service delivery. Confidence that this demand can be satisfied is in part driven by a misguided assumption that volunteering rates have risen during the economic downturn.

This short article uses national survey data to show that claims that volunteering “flourished” during the recession were premature and overly optimistic and that in fact rates have declined. It goes on to offer some possible explanations for this fall in volunteering and concludes by discussing why it is important to understand the impact of the recession.

The anecdotal evidence

In the first throes of the economic downturn, many in the volunteering movement claimed a huge spike in interest for volunteering opportunities. A BBC article argued that volunteering “soars” as unemployment increases and reported that some of the UK’s largest volunteering infrastructure organisations, including CSV and YouthNet, had seen the number of applicants “rocket”.

Earlier this year, Philip Blond, Director of ResPublica, claimed rates had doubled in recent months and IVR research, published in April 2009, showed that 87 per cent of Volunteer Centres reported an increase in the number of enquiries since the start of the recession. Yet the national data on volunteering tells a very different story.

So what does the national level data show?

By far the most regular and reliable data on volunteering is provided by the annual Citizenship Survey (now being discontinued). It shows that rates of formal volunteering (through a group, club or organisation) actually declined between 2007-08 and 2009-10. Regular formal rates (at least once a month) fell from 27 per cent to 25 per cent over this period and all formal rates (at least once in the last 12 months) fell from 43 per cent to 40 per cent.

It may be that the beginnings of the recession did see a boost in interest in volunteering but that this interest was not converted into people actually volunteering.

General volunteering rates in England (taken from the Citizenship Survey 2009-10)

Regular formal volunteering All formal volunteering Regular informal volunteering All informal volunteering
2009-10 25 40 29 54
2008-09 26 41 35 62
2007-08 27 43 35 64

What do we know about the effect of the recession on volunteering?

The honest answer is not very much. The hard evidence to explain the national trends isn’t available yet but we can use existing research to speculate on some of the trends. Fundamentally, the dynamic effects of a recession on volunteering are extremely complex. For every push there is a pull – rising unemployment offers people more time (lack of time being a significant barrier to volunteering); yet we also know that those out of work are generally less likely to volunteer than those in work (37 per cent compared to 44 per cent for formal volunteering).

Similarly, a recession could promote employer-supported volunteering schemes as employers strive to retain staff who have less work to carry out over the short term; yet at the same time, employees may feel less able to take time off work to volunteer as they seek to prove their indispensability.

Equally, the demands upon voluntary sector and public sector services is likely to be intensified (requiring more volunteers); yet a recession is also likely to bring funding cuts, which can limit the number of services offered and the ability of organisations to involve volunteers effectively. If organisations are less able to support volunteering, this might imply that people are choosing to help each other out more informally and directly – but again the evidence suggests the opposite.

Informal volunteering appears to be collapsing

There has been a dramatic fall in informal volunteering (giving time as an individual and not through an organisation, such as driving a neighbour to hospital) over the last couple of years. Regular informal volunteering has fallen from 35 per cent in 2007-08 to 29% in 2009-10 and all informal volunteering has fallen severely from 64 per cent to 54 per cent over the same period.

The reasons for this fall are not yet clear but as the figures have been pretty stable between 2001 and 2007-08 it appears that the recession (and its aftermath) is likely to be a significant driver of this trend. The fall could be seen as both a manifestation and symptom of the negative social effects that often accompany a recession.

Why is it important to understand the impact of the recession?

The evidence clearly debunks the assumption that as people fall out of employment they will naturally pursue volunteering as a route back to work. Confidence in this assumption raises the danger that the employability benefits of volunteering will not be properly communicated and that the unemployed will not be adequately supported to get back to work.

Furthermore, in the context of severe public spending cuts and aspirations to build the ‘Big Society’, the national data suggests that faith in the ability of volunteers to fill the vacuum left by a retraction of the state is misplaced and misguided. The UK may have emerged from recession in the final quarter of  2009 but unemployment continues to rise and the national data suggests that for volunteering rates to be sustained (never mind ‘flourish’) will require considerable investment to support volunteers and those who support volunteers.

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Matt is a senior research officer at the Institute for Volunteering Research (now part of NCVO) where he has worked since 2008.

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