Five questions we should be asking about volunteering in 2017

It’s customary around this time of year to make predictions for the following year. But as 2016 has shown how tricky predictions can be, I’ve set out five questions anyone involved in volunteer management should be asking next year.

What’s happening to volunteering by older people?

Many organisations rely on older volunteers to function. But as retirement age increases and as people care more for their grandchildren, many people are likely to find themselves with less time to volunteer. Lack of time is the single biggest barrier to getting involved, so if we want to avoid losing this significant group of volunteers this feels like something we should be looking at.

I don’t think this is necessarily going to happen straightaway but those organisations who start thinking through how to manage a potential decline in the number of volunteers are likely to be a step ahead of others. But this isn’t about treating older people as a homogeneous body – as with any age group, older people’s relationship to volunteering is complicated and varied.

How can we support independent volunteering?

The refugee crisis has seen many people driving to Calais to deliver food to migrants or visiting the Greek islands to directly support people landing off boats. While this can be done through organisations, much is self-organised. Are these people doing it themselves and coming together independently because they perceive organisations to be too bureaucratic or slow to respond, or is it that they value a more direct form of engagement with the people they want to help?

We need to know more about people’s motivations for self-organising and their experiences. Moreover, we need to ask how (and indeed should) ‘traditional’ volunteer-involving organisations can best support a more fluid kind of volunteering that doesn’t necessarily need organisations for it to take place.

What’s unique about volunteering in public services?

How to provide high quality public services in a cost-effective way will continue to be one of the key challenges facing government. Budgets will be tighter than ever and we’ll likely see further reductions, cuts and closures.

We know that volunteers already make a huge contribution to our public services, but there will be even more space and opportunity to get involved. But to do this well, we need to better understand what is distinct about the contribution of volunteers – what do they bring that paid staff cannot, how can volunteers be embedded as part of services rather than tacked on as an afterthought, and how can tensions between staff and volunteers around job replacement be best avoided?

How much technology really is replicable?

The simple answer is a lot, but not everything. We’d do well to resist the temptation of dazzling new technologies that may simply be too expensive for organisations to take advantage of or may respond to a need that doesn’t really exist.

The best technology understands a problem people are having (sometimes better than customers know themselves) and has low barriers to wider uptake. There’s some great stuff around volunteering through smartphones and online opportunities (my current favourite is Zooniverse, a fantastic citizen science project), both of which feel replicable and useful.

What’s the role of volunteering in a divided society?

The EU referendum result and its campaign revealed a country divided along some pretty deep lines (Lord Ashcroft did some interesting polling after the vote which is well worth a read). Since then we’ve heard sector leaders talk about how charities and volunteering will be crucial in helping to heal these divisions. Indeed, there’s some good evidence to suggest that volunteering helps create stronger communities and is linked to improvements in social capital. But we need to know more and we shouldn’t assume that everyone shares the view that charities – and volunteering – are forces for good in society.


The year has seen considerable change, much of which took commentators by surprise. Given we’ll continue to experience uncertainty and change throughout 2017, we need to be periodically taking stock of the external environment and how it’s affecting volunteering. We don’t yet know the answers to these questions but I’m looking forward to working with my team at the NCVO Institute for Volunteering Research alongside the country’s volunteer managers and volunteers to find out. If you think you’ve got any answers – or any other questions – please do share your thoughts and get in touch.


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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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