Today’s Community Life survey results show no change in rates of formal volunteering

Rates of formal volunteering show no change

This morning saw the release of the latest results from the government’s annual Community Life survey, which provides us with the best data we have on rates of volunteering in England. Levels remain similar to last year, with 42% of people reporting that they volunteered formally at least once a year during the period May 2014 – April 2015 (41% in the previous year).

The same is true if we look at rates of participation in ‘regular’ formal volunteering (defined as taking part at least once a month) – there’s been no change at all from last year, with it remaining at  27%. These figures all refer to ‘formal’ volunteering, which includes anything which takes place through a group, club, or organisation.


Source: Citizenship and Community Life surveys

It’s important to note that while we have seen a one percentage point increase in rates of formal volunteering at least once a year, this change is not ‘statistically significant’. In effect, the change we see is too small for us to be certain that it’s not just due to chance. We cannot therefore say that rates of volunteering have increased from last year and we should therefore assume that there’s been no variation between this year and the previous year for rates of formal volunteering at least once a year.

Things continue to be broadly stable

The figures from this survey therefore continue to demonstrate that rates of volunteering in this country are pretty stable over time. We can appreciate this when we look back to 2001, which is when the government’s Citizenship Survey (the predecessor to the Community Life Survey) started recording rates of volunteering. Over nearly 15 years of data, the difference between the highest (44% in 2012/13 and 2005) and lowest (39% in 2001 and 2010/11) rates of volunteering varies by only five percentage points.

While this stability is clearly important, these high level figures risk masking a few things that I think are particularly interesting:

  • Volunteering is considerably more stable than other forms of participation – some of which have seen a decline (such as voting, union participation, or political party membership) and some of which have increased (such as ethical consumerism).
  • Changes in the number of hours people contribute, which don’t necessarily change in line with overall rates of volunteering.
  • Volunteering is dynamic. It’s not as simple as roughly the same 40%  volunteering each year and the remaining 60% doing nothing. People move in and out of volunteering and while there’s good evidence for a ‘civic core’, many, many people will drop in and out of volunteering.
  • Even small percentage changes in these figures can represent real changes in hundreds of thousands of people.

Volunteering seems to be pretty resistant to external factors

There’s still a question about whether or not the recent recession affected rates of volunteering (there does seem to have been a steady decline between 2005 and 2010/11) but the overall long-term stability suggests that volunteering itself is pretty resistant to external factors. On that point, it’s worth reading John Mohan’s helpful blog about why the 2012 Games probably had no real impact on national rates of volunteering.

So does this mean we should stop worrying about volunteering? That we should stop asking government or others to invest in it? Or that we don’t need to raise awareness of it? Absolutely not, because without this volunteering will suffer. We just need to remember that as useful as they are, top line figures such as these can only tell us so much. We need to be asking how people’s participation in volunteering is varying by different demographic factors, what’s happening between different geographic areas, or how the frequency and intensity of involvement is changing over time.

My colleagues in our research team will be publishing further blogs over the coming few weeks to unpick this data in more detail. In the meantime you can access the Excel data here and as soon as the full data tables are available from the Cabinet Office – some time in the autumn – we’ll also be doing further analysis which will be described in our UK Civil Society Almanac website. It’s also worth noting that this year’s survey has a population of 2,022 people, which is considerably less than the 5,105 who responded to the previous year’s survey. While this reduced sample is still sufficient for us to say that its figures are representative of the population as a whole, it does mean that our ability to do sub-level analysis, for example by region or by different demographics, will be potentially more limited than with previous years.

But in the meantime I’d love to hear what you think this new data means for volunteering.

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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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