Are there three million new volunteers?

The Conservative Party Manifesto published this week outlines a number of proposals for building the Big Society alongside a claim that

Volunteering is now at a ten-year high, with over three million more adults giving their time last year than in the year to March 2010” (p45).

This striking figure prompted a number of emails questioning its validity and so this post takes a look at the evidence (I was also inspired by David Kane’s blog assessing the claim of 1m new charitable givers).

Where does the figure come from?

There’s no source for the claim but we assume that it comes from the Community Life Survey, which is the government’s (and our) preferred data source for volunteering statistics. This survey refers only to England as volunteering is a devolved issue.

Has volunteering increased by 3 million?

Yes. Their claim is about all volunteering, which we take to include both formal (through an organisation) and informal (as an individual) volunteering done at least once a year. Looking at the most recent data for 2013-14 (Excel sheets – table 1) we can see that ‘any volunteering’ has increased from 66% in 2009-10 to 74% in 2013-14. Using data from the 2011 Census (42 million English adults) this equates to an increase from around 27.5 million to 31 million over that period – a rise of 3.5 million volunteers.

Is this a ten-year high?

Not quite. Factoring in statistical significance the rate of ‘any volunteering’ has returned to 2007-08 levels but has not reached its 2005 high of 32 million. In another recent blog on volunteering data, Nick Ockenden warns that trends can start to look pretty different depending on exactly which time period you are talking about. As he argues, the key story since 2001 (when the survey started) is general stability in volunteering levels. What we have seen recently is a dip in ‘any volunteering’ rates between 2007-08 and 2010-11 and then a recovery over the last two years.

Is this the best figure for volunteering rates?

No. The use of ‘any volunteering’ could be misleading. When most people think of volunteering they will likely imagine formal activity given through an organisation such as hospice helpers, charity shops, school governors, sports coaches, museum guides or telephone supporters and so it is arguably best to keep formal and informal figures separate. The most recent rates of formal volunteering (regular or not) are the same as in 2009-10 and, in fact, after rising sharply to 2012-13 the number of formal volunteers actually fell from 44% to 41% the next year (2013-14) – equating to a drop of 1.5 million volunteers. So, it is actually the increase in informal volunteering that has driven the overall increase in ‘any volunteering’ – with it rising from 54% in 2009-10 to 64% in 2013-14 (over 4 million more informal volunteers). This type of volunteering is vital to our communities and includes things like doing shopping for elderly neighbours or giving a friend’s child a lift to school. It is often undervalued so it is important that we collect data on it, however, it is less likely to be affected by government policy and, indeed, the existing schemes highlighted in the manifesto – the National Citizen’s Service, the Work Programme and the Big Society Awards were all aimed at formal volunteering.

Was there a ‘social recession’?

It increasingly looks like there was. As said, a longer view on the data shows that volunteering rates fell between 2007-08 and 2009-10 and have now returned to their pre-recessionary levels. Tom Clark goes beyond rates and analyses volunteering hours in his recent book Hard Times – showing that the average amount of time that people spent volunteering each month fell quite sharply between the third quarter of 2008 and the second quarter of 2010. He concludes that “the UK’s social recession was considerably bigger than the financial one”. This is fascinating analysis and we plan to have a closer look at volunteering hours when the next Community Life Survey data is out in the summer.

As ever, please leave comments below – it would be great to hear your thoughts…


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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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