Volunteers who deliver: How many are involved in public service delivery?

Volunteers’ Week (1-7 June) has brought much discussion of the role of volunteers in public service provision and in particular whether it can and should be increased. Yet a lot of this commentary grossly underestimates the millions of people already engaged in such activities. Partly this is because the sector simply lacks the basic data we need for sound evidence-led policy and practice. For sure, volunteering in public service delivery (PSD) raises a lot of very contentious issues (many of which Angela Ellis Paine and I explore in a forthcoming TSRC book chapter – which we will blog on later this year) but this post attempts to draw on multiple sources to simply ask how many volunteers are currently involved in different areas of public services?

Firstly, what do we mean by public service delivery?

The precise meaning, as these things often do, lies in the eye of the beholder, but it’s useful to think of four (sequentially broader) approaches.

1. ‘Public provision’

Restricts PSD to services directly provided by statutory agencies like the NHS or comprehensive schools.

2. ‘Public funding’

Adds services that the state funds but doesn’t run like private sector prisons or most voluntary hospices.

3. ‘Public responsibility’

Includes those services that the government is responsible for even if they do not directly run or fund them such as lifeboats or care homes.

4. ‘Public benefit’

The broadest approach. It encompasses all activity that offers a service to the public (as Alcock (also forthcoming) points out this definition also has the longest history). This pretty much includes all volunteering be it coaching tennis or campaigning to make poverty history.

How many volunteers are involved in PSD?

Whichever of the above approaches we take, there are generally three ways of finding out the number of people involved.

1. National datasets

Firstly, national surveys show what individuals say about their own volunteering roles. This is the most comprehensive data we have but it only looks at broad categories such as ‘health, disability and social welfare’ or ‘education for adults’ that overstretch our definition and it doesn’t (reliably) slice things up by the sector of the organisation being helped (voluntary, public or private). The King’s Fund used this method to calculate there are 3m volunteers in health and social care but although this figure powerfully demonstrates the sheer extent of involvement, they acknowledge it is a rough estimate. An advantage of the survey data is that it captures informal volunteering – much of which should rightfully be included such as caring for a neighbour or translating a tax return for a friend. The table below draws on the Community Life Survey 2012-13 to show the number of regular volunteers in some of the biggest service areas (scaled up for the UK) (NB: many volunteers are involved in multiple roles).

Service area / type of role Number of UK volunteers (at least once a month)
Children’s education/schools 5.0m
Youth/children’s activities (outside school) 4.5m
Health, disability and social welfare 3.0m
Education for adults 3.0m
Giving advice (informal) 9.0m
Transporting or escorting someone (informal) 6.5m
Representing someone  (informal) 1.5m
Sitting with or providing personal care for someone who is sick or frail (informal) 1.5m

2. Existing research projects

The second method simply explores existing research in specific sectors. This can be very reliable and often offers much more detail than just the total number of volunteers but unfortunately not many such pieces of work exist. Notable exceptions are Hospice UK’s survey of palliative care providers (125,000 volunteers); the King’s Fund survey of volunteers in acute trusts (78,000) and CIPFA’s survey of libraries (36,000 volunteers).

3. Organisational monitoring data

The third method is to search monitoring data from umbrella bodies or volunteer-involving-organisations (VIOs) involved in public service delivery (this NESTA report gives good examples). In criminal justice alone there are around 30,000 volunteers involved directly in policing, more than 20,000 as magistrates and over 5,000 engaged by Victim Support. This gives an indication of the huge scale of involvement but, regrettably, much of the story is missing – what about the thousands of volunteers involved as responsible adults, Crimestoppers, prison volunteers (including prisoners themselves) and the huge number involved in Neighbourhood Watch groups (there are 170,000 groups in England and Wales alone!). The table below offers a sample of some of the data out there (NB: the figures are of varying reliability so please check before referencing).

Public service delivery role Number of volunteers (with hyperlink to the information)
Health and social care
NHS acute trusts 78,000
Hospices 125,000
Long term care 7,534 (likely to be a significant underestimate)
Samaritans 19,460
Alzheimer’s Society 7,500
St John Ambulance 44,000
School governors 300,000
Criminal Justice
Special constables 20,000
Police Support Volunteers 6,250 (England and Wales)
Magistrates 23,000
Victim Support 5,600
Emergency services
Lifeboats 31,500
Mountain and Cave Rescue 2,000 (unofficial estimate)
Local services
Libraries 35,813
Museums (independent) 100,000
Barnado’s 15,000
Age UK 75,000
Canal and river trust 7,521
TCV 11,523
Crisis 9,266

Help us to build a better picture

I hope the above is useful but there are huge gaps even in this foundational knowledge – especially in education but also in the fire brigade, ambulance services, transport, energy, waste management, housing and many other key areas of PSD. If you know of any other bits of information or want to question the figures presented here please just add it to the comments section below and we will update the table – it will only take a minute and will be extremely valuable.

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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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