Quality is just as important as quantity in volunteering

Nick Ockenden is Head of the Institute for Volunteering Research at NCVO.

Latest figures from the Community Life survey, published this week, show a high level of volunteering in England and an increase from the previous year. Forty-four per cent of people questioned during the period August 2012 to April 2013 reported volunteering formally (i.e. through a group, club or organisation) at least once in the previous year, while 29% said they had done so at least once a month. These figures have increased significantly from those reported by the Citizenship Survey (the Community Life’s predecessor) in 2010-11, which were 39% and 25% respectively.

Data from the Citizenship Survey gives us information on rates of volunteering going back to 2001, and because it uses a consistent methodology we have a useful period of comparable data. During this period, rates of formal and informal volunteering peaked in 2005, and then – for some reason – started to decline slowly.

This week’s figures show a return to the peak level figures, and seem to suggest, at least for this year, that the decline has been halted. What we can’t tell from these results, however, is whether or not this represents a longer-term trend of increasing rates of volunteering in this country; we’ll only be able to tell once we have data from future years. We also want to wait until we have the full year’s results until we do some more detailed analysis on exactly who is volunteering and where.

These figures are encouraging and should be welcomed; that more people are taking part in volunteering is great news. But it would be a mistake to focus on quantity alone at the expense of quality. One of the key reasons people give for stopping volunteering is that they had a bad experience or were poorly managed. Focusing on increasing rates of volunteering and removing barriers to people’s participation is clearly vital, but for it to be sustainable it must be matched with the provision of high quality volunteering opportunities that are appropriately resourced, well-supported, and open to all.

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Nick Ockenden Nick is the head of research at NCVO. As part of this he leads the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he has worked since 2005.

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