International ‘volunteering league tables’ and progress towards a ‘big society’

Author: Daniel Stevens

The ‘Giving Green Paper’ recently published by the Cabinet Office has used the UK’s relatively low standing in a world league table of giving time to argue that volunteering levels in the UK can and should increase. It states that: ‘[a]lthough the UK is a generous nation we could do so much more – for example, the UK ranks only 29th in the 2010 World Giving Index for ‘giving time’’. The statistic is repeated again when discussing ‘why we can achieve a culture change’; it has been reported as one of the Green Paper’s headline findings and has been picked up in the media.

Despite the attention given to it, and the weight of argument that rests upon it, the validity of this statistic has not been questioned. This is potentially dangerous. International league tables in general are to be treated with some caution, but this particular one is not only misleading but even quite perverse, and a very shaky basis for justifying a call for the nation to give more.

The international volunteering league table

The league table overleaf forms part of the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index which covered 153 countries and draws on data from Gallup’s World View survey. The index is based on three questions from that survey. The question for ‘giving time’ was whether the respondent had volunteered time to an organisation in the last month.

The World Giving Index does not include separate tables for each of the three constituent questions, but based on an aggregate table we can construct the top 30 in this volunteering league. This is done overleaf but with an additional column – the country’s Freedom in the World 2011 ranking.

While itself somewhat subjective, the Freedom in the World rating of countries into three broad categories gives some sense of the extent to which they ensure basic human freedoms (Freedom House 2010 Methodology). The rating covers 194 countries, of which 87 are free (45 per cent), 60 are partly free (31 per cent) and 47 not free (24 per cent).

Rank Country Percentage volunteering Freedom in the World status
1 Turkmenistan 61% Not free
2 Sri Lanka 52% Partly free
3 Central African Republic 47% Partly free
4 Sierra Leone 45% Partly free
5 Tajikistan 42% Not free
6 Guinea 42% Partly free
7 New Zealand 41% Free
8 Myanmar 40% Not free
9 Uzbekistan 39% Not free
10 USA 39% Free
11 Netherlands 39% Free
12 Angola 39% Not free
13 Norway 38% Free
14 Haiti 38% Partly free
15 Australia 38% Free
16 Philippines 36% Partly free
17 Malawi 35% Partly free
18 Ireland 35% Free
19 Canada 35% Free
20 Switzerland 34% Free
21 Guyana 33% Free
22 Guatemala 33% Partly free
23 Lao People’s Democratic Republic 32% Not free
24 Belarus 32% Not free
25 Mongolia 31% Free
26 Ghana 31% Free
27 Liberia 30% Partly free
28 Austria 30% Free
29 United Kingdom 29% Free
30 Malaysia 29% Partly free

Four of the top ten in this international volunteering league table are considered ‘not free’ countries. Given that some of the world’s most reclusive and authoritarian countries are right at the top (such as Turkmenistan and Myanmar / Burma) we can speculate that, had it been included, North Korea might also appear near the top, making it a rogues gallery of some of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world.

The problem of comparing volunteering across borders

The point is that comparisons based on a basic question like ‘have you volunteered time to an organisation?’ are almost meaningless given the wide divergence of understandings of the concept of volunteering in different cultures and languages and varying extents to which government’s incentivise (or require!) it. In short, the survey may have been measuring quite different things in different countries and does not distinguish between volunteering as a result of a ‘nudge’ or ‘gun to the head’ style ‘push’.

The potential for international comparisons of volunteering levels

This is not to say that such comparisons are always unhelpful. Comparing industrialised democracies with semi-feudal autocracies is evidently inappropriate, but comparing like with like, for example how volunteering rates vary across Europe, can be informative.

While in isolation the various surveys that address patterns of volunteering across Europe suffer from methodological limitations, taken together an interesting picture emerges. Jeremy Kendall’s (2010) aggregated table of formal volunteering (the term widely used in the UK for giving time through an organisation) across Europe presents a pattern in which levels of volunteering vary with some consistency. So Sweden and the Netherlands invariably come out near the top, and the UK leads a middling group of countries.

  • EVS: European Values Survey
  • ISSP: International Social Survey Programme
  • ESS: European Social Survey
  • Eb: Eurobarometer (includes ‘participation’)
EVS, 1999 ISSP, 1998 ESS, 2002/3 Eb,2004
Sweden 33 49 35 50
The Netherlands 32 51 29 49
Great Britain 36 37 23 33
France 14 58 19 36
Denmark 21 33 28 42
Belgium 22 23 38
Ireland 15 33 16 41
Germany (west) 8 29 26 35
Italy 17 24 5 23
Spain 9 22 7 16

But given the diversity of activities that this includes, what is probably more revealing is when we look at the types of formal volunteering that take place in each country.  The quality, as well as the quantity of the volunteering, is also important but harder to capture in large international surveys.

The European Values Survey and a comparative study on civil society conducted by John Hopkins University both explore the types of organisations that involve volunteers. What this shows is that where volunteering is very high it can be because citizens are involved in delivering services (such as in the Netherlands) but can be because they are extensively engaged in ‘leisure’ types of volunteering – participating in cultural societies or sports clubs (such as in Sweden) – see Salamon et al (footnote 13).


In short, while rates of volunteering are of some interest, probably more important for policy makers is the type of volunteering expected of its citizens. Is it to be service delivery, as in the case of ‘liberal’ or ‘welfare partnership’ models, or is it in more advocacy related or recreational activities (as in the social democratic model)?

It is about which of these models is most appropriate for the UK that should be stimulating debate and action, rather than uncritical references to misleading international league tables.


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