The changing face of volunteering and four ways you can respond

In light of recent events I feel more aware than ever of how rapidly the world changes around us. From politics and technology to changes in the challenges our communities face. It’s rare that we move on each year without a shift from the status quo.

Volunteering is no different; do we think enough as volunteer managers about how trends shape how people want to give their time, and how we should respond to that by adapting our strategy and approaches to involving volunteers?

Big business spends huge sums of money on looking at consumer trends and thinking about adapting their business model in response. They take time to understand the drivers that will transform our behaviour as consumers. It’s up to us as volunteer managers to ensure we understand how volunteering is changing and adapt to support volunteers to continue to participate.

Here I look at some of the practical ways I think organisations can adapt their approach to volunteering to ensure it’s fit for the future in a changing world.

1. Make ‘a better offer’ to older people

We can’t ignore the far reaching impact of demographic change and our ageing population. I couldn’t agree more with the call to action by the commission on the voluntary sector and ageing, in its 2015 report. We need to do two key things in response:

  1. See older people as assets who can make a meaningful contribution.
  2. Work harder to offer meaningful, exciting and high quality opportunities for older people to give their time as volunteers.

The sector has done too little in response to the commission’s report and it will be interesting to see whether new work like the Second Half fund embraces some of the learning from it.

2. Offer flexibility for everyone

Older people now and in the future are likely to face increasing demands on their time – they will be working for longer, retiring later and may have caring responsibilities for a spouse and perhaps grandchildren. We need to offer flexibility and enable older people to shape their own projects and opportunities.

We have recognised this in our need to engage young people, like the One Million Hours campaign by Radio 1, but less so for the older generation or people who work full time. We need to make a better offer in terms of volunteering that fits in with people’s lifestyles and demands on their time and go further in our approach to developing short-term, flexible volunteering, which I have mentioned before.

3. Use insight and research to understand participation

We need to make better use of what we know about how and why people participate in activities like volunteering.

Infographics taken from the Pathways to Participation project

These infographics come from a research project called Pathways through Participation. It’s an under-valued piece of research among volunteer managers, considering its relevance and importance for our practice.

It shows that engagement in volunteering is best understood as a journey over someone’s life – it evolves over time in response to people’s life stage and what’s happening in their wider environment; it doesn’t happen in a bubble.

We need to understand that people’s ability to participate changes over time. In order to create a culture of volunteering where people are able to volunteer throughout their lives then we need to build in the flexibility and pathways needed in order to support people on this journey.

4. Embrace culture change

In some cases a culture change is required in our organisations to embrace the fact that volunteers may have a more fluid relationship with us. We perhaps need to change our mentality – from one which recruits volunteers to do a role, to one where we’re more enablers than managers, working with people to help them volunteer their time and talents?

Effectively embracing new ways for volunteers to give their time requires a strategic approach to volunteering. This should include investment in volunteer managers, as key stakeholders in implementing a strategy and in facilitating change – to develop volunteering in your organisation that is fit for the future. Delivering a diverse range of well-managed, high quality opportunities is not cost-free.


What changes are you noticing in the way people give their time? Let us know in the comment section below.


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Avatar photo Kristen is NCVO’s Volunteer Management and Good Practice Manager. She’s interested in raising the profile of volunteer management as a profession, and the development of approaches which can help volunteering deliver for people, organisations and communities.

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