Understanding the approach behind the report – ‘CAB volunteering: how everyone benefits’

Sian Whyte

Sian Whyte works as an impact evaluation analyst at Citizens Advice. Citizens Advice has been a member of NCVO since 1996. This post was commissioned as part of Volunteers’ Week 2014.

We hope you’ve seen our new report ‘CAB volunteering: how everyone benefits’ (PDF, 360KB). This is based on evidence from nearly 1,500 Citizens Advice Bureau volunteers, and looks at the full story of the value of volunteering with the Citizens Advice service: for us as a service, for our volunteers, and our impact on communities and society as a result.

This includes:

  • 8 in 10 unemployed volunteers believe they are overcoming barriers to employment
  • 100 per cent of our retired volunteers believe it keeps them mentally active
  • 4 in 5 believe volunteering had a positive effect on their physical or mental health.

Understanding the approach

But there’s another story to tell. We’ve learned that the research process itself can be as useful and powerful as the final results. And to gather a full understanding of how volunteering benefits society, you have to unpick and challenge what you think the experience gives people, and why this is important.

What did we do?

When starting a piece of volunteering research, it’s tempting to jump straight in. After all, much has been written on why volunteering is a good thing, and the gains could seem obvious. It’s also the one area where there’s a fixed group of people you can easily access to understand your impact.

But is it that simple? We questioned our assumptions about what CAB volunteering might have an impact on, working through the steps needed for people to benefit:

  • what support and investment needs to be in place
  • how this develops volunteer skills and abilities, and what the experience enables them to do
  • ultimately, what difference this could have on their lives, and where and how this translates into societal benefit.

By forcing ourselves to think about what was truly important about the volunteering experience, we could create a framework of the ways we suspected volunteering created value, and how. The usually hard-to-pin-down gains became much clearer, and we could develop hypotheses on our impact to test with volunteers.

Why was this useful?

As a result, we could see the gaps in our knowledge. When then designing online surveys with our volunteers, we knew exactly the questions we needed to ask to prove or disprove our understanding of volunteering’s value.

As a result, we’ve been able to capture very specific and detailed feedback on our impact. We’ve looked at the value of volunteering holistically rather focusing on one area, as we can see that the benefits of volunteering are interlocking and do not work in isolation. We worked hard to ensure our research did not cherry-pick known gains of volunteering, but instead would reveal and demonstrate the bigger picture. We believe this more accurately represents the deep connection people feel with volunteering, and the complexity of its impact on their lives.

Our 22,000 volunteers are vital to the Citizens Advice service, donating seven million volunteering hours in 2012/13, enabling the service to reach far more people than if we were purely-staff run. Undertaking research into how volunteering benefits them, helps us not only to continue to best support our volunteers, but to put the case forward for the value of volunteering and why it matters.

This research forms the first strand of a wider piece of work determining CAB social value – the additional benefit provided to society through the way we deliver our services. To find out more, read our report (PDF, 360KB), follow us on Twitter (@CABImpact) or send an email to impact@citizensadvice.org.uk

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