Ten things you should know about the latest volunteering and voluntary sector research

I attended the 11th International Society for Third Sector Research Conference in Muenster, Germany last week as part of my PhD studies at Northumbria University.

I thought you might find these new bits of research useful….

1. Most people move in and out of volunteering

Daiga Kamerade (University of Birmingham) showed that although overall volunteering rates are stable this masks a hidden dynamism in the volunteer population. She found that over 10 years – 11% volunteered every year, 13% never volunteered and the vast majority of people moved in and out of volunteering. This is so important because if policy is aiming to increase volunteering – it should shift from trying to get non-volunteers to participate to getting those already engaged to do more.

2. You are more likely to volunteer if you are richer than those around you

We know that those with higher incomes are more likely to volunteer but Alasdair Rutherford (Stirling University) presented Scottish data suggesting a relative income effect as well. So, for two people with the same income – the one living in the poorer area is more likely to volunteer.

3. There is a huge Civil Society in China

It is arguably the second biggest in the world (after the US – although India might stake a claim) with one estimate quoted by Huiquan Zhou (The Chinese University of Hong Kong) of 1.5 million unregistered organisations. This raises the question – at what point will we be taking delegations to China rather than the other way around?

4. We can measure philanthropy in National Accounts

Lester Salamon (Johns Hopkins University) has long championed the need to collect data on the voluntary sector through government’s National Accounts (there are already thousands of economists working on them). He presented new research that an existing bit of data in National Accounts – “miscellaneous currency transfers” could account for philanthropic donations – the details of this will be in the revised UN non-profit Handbook. NCVO and others have already done a lot to work with government on measurement – with some success – but there is a long way to go (see Dave Kane’s blog post on ‘The voluntary sector in the National Accounts’).

5. Most employer supported volunteers are already volunteering

Lucas Meijs (Erasmus University) looked at corporate volunteers (CVs) in Holland – we call them employer-supported volunteers. He found that the majority of CVs already volunteer outside of work and that the number of hours spent volunteering through CV is substantially less than other volunteering – I think the former is true in the UK but not the latter. This is interesting as CVs are often thought of as a different species. See NCVO’s guide for employers and volunteer involving organisations.

6. Some government policy is having a positive effect on volunteering

Jane South (Leeds Metropolitan University) presented a (pretty) favourable evaluation of the UK’s Health and Social Care Volunteering Fund with lots of useful practical findings on how organisations can increase and develop their involvement of volunteers.

7. There is some radical stuff happening in European Civil Society

Ramón Feenstra (The Jaume I University) showed that the recent social movements and protests in Spain (Indignados and 15M movement) have completely sidestepped not only traditional party politics but also mainstream voluntary organisations. What does this mean for the sector’s role in social change?

8. Is the voluntary sector a ‘field’?

Or as Steven Rathgeb Smith (American Political Science Association) argued, should we look at policy fields (such as health, education, religion) that emphasise relations between public, private and voluntary sectors to understand what is going on?

9. We need to know more about volunteering and gender

We have good data on rates, roles and motivations but how much do we really know about how gender actually functions in organisations? In particular, do volunteer-involving-organisations challenge or perpetuate roles and experiences from broader society?  Perhaps this could make a good future blog post so tell me below if you know of any good research.

10. We still need social theory

Finally, a case was made that there is much to be gained from social theorists like Marx, Weber or Foucault in understanding volunteering and the voluntary sector. Specifically, Martti Siisiainen (University of Jyväskylä) argued for the French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. I am 100% behind this and it is exactly what I am trying to do in my PhD study looking at the power and position of volunteers in voluntary organisations that deliver public services.

I also learnt…

Muenster cheese is not from Muenster (I couldn’t find it anywhere). It would be great to hear what the above means for future practice, policy and research so let us know your thoughts below…

For more information

Read abstracts for the papers presented at the conference or contact the authors for their full papers. The next ISTR conference is in Stockholm in 2016.


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Avatar photo 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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