What’s happening to rates of volunteering?

This morning’s announcement by the Conservatives that they would launch a policy around employer-supported volunteering came with differing statements about what was happening to rates of volunteering in this country. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said that volunteering has ‘absolutely escalated’ during the Coalition Government’s administration, whilst Lisa Nandy, the Shadow Minister for Civil Society, was quoted as saying that volunteering had ‘fallen’ under the current government. So what’s really been happening?

Rates are pretty stable overall

First of all, it’s important to note that volunteering in this country is very stable over time and while we see individual fluctuations between years, rates have remained at broadly the same level over the past decade or so – I discussed this in a blogpost last summer, after the most recent set of figures were released from the government’s Community Life survey. This is actually something we should be really proud of – volunteering is pretty resilient and appears to be something that is an intrinsic part of our society (but at the same time we can’t take it for granted).

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It depends if you take a short or long-term view

The second point is that it depends on what period you look at this. The most accurate way is to look at trends over a longer period of time – and this is where we see the stability. But if you look at the differences between individual years, we do see variation in rates, both up and down.

So the latest figures on rates of volunteering do actually show a slight decrease on the previous year (in the 2013-14 survey 27% of people reported volunteering at least once a month, compared to 29% of people in 2012-13). However, we can also observe an increase here if you look at the right years. Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, for example, rates of volunteering at least once a month increased from 25% to 29%. Again, the important thing here is that these sort of year-on-year changes have happened repeatedly since 2001, when these surveys started collecting data on this. But, ultimately, there’s only four percentage points between the highest rate (29%, which occurred in 2005 and again in 2012-13) and the lowest (25%, in 2009-10 and 2010-11). Overall, it’s stable.

It depends which data source you use

All of the figures I’ve quoted so far are drawn from the Community Life survey (and its predecessor the Citizenship survey) as this is the most comprehensive source of data on rates of volunteering we have in this country, and the longest. My guess is that the statements last week were based on this survey, but we don’t know for sure. There are some other surveys that also explore rates of volunteering over time – but due to different methodologies and slightly different questions they provide different figures (see, for example, CAF’s World giving Index (I blogged about the results of this last year) and nfpSynergy’s surveys on rates of volunteering).

The next set of data on rates of volunteering, again from the Community Life survey, will be released in the summer. We’ll be reporting on these as soon as they’re 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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