Community Life Survey results show no change in volunteering

This morning the Cabinet Office published the latest results from its Community Life Survey. This survey provides the most reliable data we have on rates of volunteering in England.

Today’s data shows that rates of volunteering remain similar to the last two years with 41% of people reporting volunteering formally at least once a year during the period May 2015 – April 2016 (down from 42% in the previous year). This one percentage point decrease in rates of formal volunteering at least once a year is not statistically significant, in that the decrease is too small for us to be certain that it’s not just due to chance. We should therefore assume that there has not been any change between this year and last.

The same is true if we look at rates of ‘regular’ formal volunteering, which is defined as volunteering at least once a month. Just over a quarter (27%) of people reported volunteering regularly, a figure that remains unchanged from last year and the year before.

These figures all refer to ‘formal volunteering’, which is defined as volunteering that takes place through a group, club or organisation.

Rates of volunteering are largely stable over time

Perhaps the most valuable thing about the Community Life Survey is that together with the Citizenship Survey (its predecessor, which ran from 2001 until 2008/09) it provides ongoing data about rates of volunteering for more than 15 years. We can tell a lot about what’s happening to people’s involvement over a long period of time – during which we’ve seen three different governments, the biggest recession since the Second World War, and global events such as the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

I’ve written before about how overall rates of volunteering don’t tend to vary that much over a long period of time like this – and today’s results continue to show that. Over more than a decade and a half of data, the difference between the highest rates of volunteering (44% in 2012/13 and 2005) and the lowest (39% in 2001 and 2010/11) has been only five percentage points.

There was an apparent decline during the last recession

One question I’m often asked is whether the 2008 recession affected volunteering rates. While things are broadly stable over a longer period of time, shorter-term trends can be seen. James Lawrence at the LSE convincingly argues that volunteering declined during and after the last recession. He goes on to describe a ‘social recession’ in which this decline was particularly pronounced within more deprived communities. His conclusion that ‘the recession substantially widened gaps in rates of formal volunteering between the most and least disadvantaged communities’ should be of real concern for all those working with volunteers. I’ll be blogging soon on what a possible post-Brexit economic slowdown may mean for volunteering.

No change in rates of volunteering by young people

One of the big stories from last year’s results was the dramatic rise in rates of youth volunteering over the past five years. Since 2010 we’ve seen a 50% increase in rates of participation by young people at least once a month.

This year’s results show that 32% of people aged between 16 and 25 reported volunteering regularly (down from 35% in the previous year) and 49% reported volunteering at least once a year (up from 47%). However, due to the small number of people surveyed in this age group (only 240) these changes are not statistically significant. We should therefore conclude that there’s been no change in rates of volunteering by young people compared with last year’s results.

Because the Community Life Survey has been reducing the number of people it surveys over time (3,027 were surveyed this time compared to nearly 10,000 five years ago) our ability to draw conclusions about what’s happening with different demographics and in different regions is unfortunately increasingly limited. We therefore need to be cautious if we’re looking at changes between years for any particular sub-groups and I’d recommend you use their helpful ‘ready reckoner’ to work out if changes are statistically significant before you draw conclusions. This is available by downloading the data table Excel spreadsheet directly.

The more important thing here is to look at the longer term trend of volunteering rates by young people, which still show an upward trend overall.

Young people are the most active age group in terms of volunteering

What is particularly notable is that young people are now showing the highest rates of volunteering for any age group, both for regular volunteering and volunteering at least once a year. For the first time in five years, no other age group has shown higher rates of volunteering than those aged 16-25 years.

I recommend that you have a look at the data for yourself. You can access the Excel database here and when the full data tables are available – likely to be some time in the autumn – we’ll be doing further analysis which we’ll publish next year in our 2017 UK Civil Society Almanac.

In the meantime I’d love to hear your thoughts about this data and what it might mean 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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