Is volunteering really open to all?

Recent research challenges what it calls the ‘myth’ that “volunteering is an inclusive activity… where everybody can find a niche where they can do what they enjoy” (Rameder et al, 2014). It shows that although individual personality traits can drive participation, volunteering is essentially a social activity that is also driven by our ‘resources’ like education, income and social networks. Uneven access to these resources shapes uneven participation in volunteering and especially access to leadership positions meaning that far from overcoming social inequalities volunteering can mirror and even entrench them.

Inspired by this research from Austria, I thought it was worth looking at different aspects of the UK data (I have used the most recent evidence where it is available).

General rates are fairly equal

Formal volunteering rates (2013-14) are similar for many different social groups – 41% for both white and non-white. Women (41%) and men (40%) are almost as likely to participate, and there are fairly flat rates for different age groups. Not to downplay some important differences, but these generally similar rates between different ethnic, gender and age groups are also seen for informal volunteering and other forms of social action. So on these terms volunteering is pretty open but…

Volunteering is a class act

Socio-economic status is an important, and often overlooked, factor. When we look at regular formal volunteering in 2012-13, participation goes down quite sharply from those occupying higher managerial, administrative and professional occupations (37%) to those in routine and manual occupations (21%) with a similar decline from those with degree or equivalent as their highest qualification (39%) to those with no qualifications (14%).

Focusing in further, similar results are seen for the ‘civic core’ – those who give the most time and money. Managers and professionals make up 51% of this group but those in routine occupations make up only 3%. Indeed, it was fears around the unequal geographical distribution of these groups that drove Mohan’s concerns that the Big Society agenda may intensify inequalities in service provision rather than combat them.

Leaders are still pretty male, pale or stale (and middle-class)

Male volunteers (42%) are much more likely to be involved in ‘Leading the group/member of committee’ than women (31%), backing up a recent report in Third Sector Magazine that only 36% of trustees in the top 50 charities are women. Whites (37%) are much more likely than non-whites (24%) and 65-74 year olds (45%) are far more likely to occupy these roles than 16-25 year olds (22%).

Looking at the Citizenship Survey 2008-09, these disparities are again reinforced by class – those with qualifications (38%) are more often in governance positions than those with no qualifications (19%).

A woman’s work?

The table below shows that gender roles are also clearly played out in the type of activity that volunteers undertake with women considerably more likely to do traditional caring roles and men more likely to give advice and represent others. Interestingly, one exception was equal rates for ‘cooking, cleaning and laundry’ – showing not all areas are what we might expect.

Types of regular voluntary activities done by volunteers in the 12 months before being interviewed (2008-09) (%) Male Female
Decorating, home improvement (informal) 27 8
Representing (formal) 24 12
Giving advice (informal) 51 41
Giving information/advice/counselling (formal) 28 23
Representing someone (informal) 10 9
Cooking, cleaning and laundry (informal) 23 23
Other practical help (formal) 27 45
Sitting with, providing personal care (informal) 5 10
Babysitting or caring for children (informal) 19 39

Playing ‘the game’

Interestingly, research shows that class not only plays a role in what we do but also in what we get out of it.

When exploring the class-dynamics of a government youth volunteering programme, Jon Dean found that grammar school students had the resources, opportunities and skills at ‘playing the game’ of employability in order to strengthen their chances in the labour market compared to comprehensive school students ‘reinforcing rather than reducing unequal levels of social and cultural capital.’

We all know that those opportunities that tend to be taken up by middle-class volunteers, like Scouts or Duke of Edinburgh, are much more valued by employers and university admissions tutors than more informal forms of volunteering or family care that can be considerably more demanding and time intensive.

Some volunteers are more equal than others

I’ve given you a quick summary of some available data. But, just from this we can see that despite widespread claims of inclusivity and openness, volunteering is an essentially social phenomenon. It largely reflects and can even perpetuate social inequalities. We know that volunteering can offer an alternative space for people from all areas of society to flourish (and in many cases it certainly does), but it is not enough to hide behind platitudes that all volunteer roles are created equal – we know that some are more equal than others!

This isn’t just about access – it cuts to the very heart of the volunteering experience, with some roles actually offering greater economic, social and cultural benefits to the individual volunteer.

Tell us what you think

NCVO has more resources on this topic including Justin Davis Smith’s recent Volunteering for all blog post and notes from the latest National Volunteering Forum that focused on diversity. But we really want to hear from you.

Do you know of evidence that confirms or contradicts this picture?

Should we stop banging on about inclusivity and let people do what they want or do the values of volunteering compel us to take action and confront these issues head on?


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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.