Why we shouldn’t get too worried about declining rates of volunteering

Today saw the release of the latest figures from the Community Life survey, for 2013-14. During this time:

  • 41 per cent of people questioned reported volunteering formally (ie through a group, club or organisation) at least once in the previous year
  • 27 per cent said they took part at least once a month (‘regular volunteers’).

These proportions have decreased from last year’s Community Life survey results (for the period August 2012 to April 2013); which were 44% and 29% respectively.

But not all changes in figures are statistically significant – sometimes the changes can be small, which may mean that we cannot say with confidence that it is an actual, statistical change, rather than possible error. There’s a nice online calculator (a ‘ready reckoner’) in their spreadsheet which you can use to work this out, and we’ve started to plug in some of the figures from the latest set of results. This tells us that the three percentage point decrease in rates of volunteering at least once a year (44 per cent to 41 per cent) is a statistically significant decrease; so we can robustly say there has been a decline here. However, the two percentage point decrease in rates of regular volunteering (29 per cent to 27 per cent) is not statistically significant; so we cannot say with confidence that it has decreased. It’s worth noting, though, that statistical significance testing between years remains a fairly crude measure, and it becomes more meaningful when used to look at differences over a longer period of time, say five or ten years.

So the question that a lot of people will be asking is should we be worried that rates have decreased since last year? Well, no. In my blog post last summer, when the last set of results for the Community Life survey were released, I argued that the increase we saw then was probably not part of a trend. And I’d urge similar caution now as the decrease we’ve just seen is most likely to be a fluctuation between years.

We have good, comparable data on rates of volunteering in this country going back to 2001 and the key characteristic for me is one of stability. Since then, we’ve only seen variation of five percentage points between the record high (44 per cent in 2005 and 2012-13) and the record low (39 per cent in 2001 and 2011-12) (for rates of formal volunteering). We continue to have one of the highest rates of volunteering in the world and while we shouldn’t take this for granted, we also shouldn’t read too much in to a relatively small decline.

This also raises another question for me. How does a decline like this square with the numerous anecdotal reports we hear from our members and others about more people volunteering? Perhaps one – not altogether satisfactory – answer is that any national-level statistic like this is inevitably going to hide individual variations. Some organisations will be experiencing increases in volunteering, while others witness a decline.

We’ll be making further comments on these latest set of results over the coming weeks. The government has also released the raw data for the 2012-13 period which allows anyone to go in and analyse the data at a much deeper level than has previously been possible. We’ll also be looking at this data and would encourage anyone interested to do the same as there’s a wealth of information available.

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Nick Ockenden is an NCVO research associate and former head of the research team. As part of this role he led the work of the Institute for Volunteering Research, where he worked from 2005.

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