Reading between the numbers – what a new analysis of volunteer behaviour could mean for charities

This morning the Office for National Statistics published a new analysis of volunteering data. It focuses on volunteering behaviour and allows us to get behind some of the high-level statistics that simply describe the proportion of people who volunteer. Here are a few of the key things that jumped out for me and my team here at NCVO, and what they might mean for those of us who support and work with volunteers.

Overall rates of volunteering are still high

The report uses data from the Community Life survey to look at rates of volunteering. As my team have reported in NCVO’s Civil Society Almanac and in some of my earlier blogs, these rates remain high and rather steady. Before we start beating ourselves up that participation hasn’t skyrocketed, we should recognise that stability can be a good thing in itself – it suggests that volunteering is resilient. And while we shouldn’t take that stability for granted, we should recognise that volunteering is a core part of our society that’s embedded in many, many people’s everyday behaviour.

Volunteers giving less time

Potentially one of the most interesting findings was that volunteers are spending less time volunteering, drawing data from the Time Use survey. The changes may not seem enormous (the average time spent volunteering decreased from 12.3 to 11.3 minutes for men and 16.3 to 15.7 minutes for women over the past 15 years) but they can be notable overall, as these figures are averages and some people may be spending significantly less time volunteering.  Other data, however, seems to show more stability in time spent volunteering, including an analysis my team did on Community Life survey data. Either way, I don’t think we should starting panicking at this finding – but we would do well to turn more of our attention to how we can best support, manage and retain existing volunteers, alongside recruiting new ones.

It’s a supply and demand issue

We hear a lot about how busy people’s lives are nowadays and we know that lack of time is the biggest reason people give for not volunteering. While I think people have always been busy, the past 15 years have seen big changes in some areas. For example older people working later in life or having more caring commitments for parents or grandchildren, which could act to limit the time they can spend volunteering. But this decline in time spent volunteering may also be connected to how volunteering has developed in recent years. We’ve seen more and more discussion of how to promote flexibility in volunteering and, while not new in itself, I’ve seen an increased interest in micro-volunteering and in how to offer short-term, one-off opportunities. This is a good thing and while micro-volunteering clearly can’t replace the regular, ongoing volunteering that so many organisations rely on, it may contribute to some people dipping in and out of volunteering, staying involved, but at a lighter level.

Young people are doing more

I blogged about recent increases in volunteering by younger people last year (a rise which has since levelled off) and today’s analysis adds more to this trend. It’s another reminder of why it’s useful to ‘get behind’ the high-level rates and see what’s happening with different groups of people – as what’s happening with younger people could be having a big effect on the overall picture. Today’s analysis found that just over half of those aged 16-24 volunteered for an average of 17 minutes a day, the highest of all age groups in terms of both average the time spent volunteering and overall rates of engagement. But it also managed to pull out some interesting things about the behaviour of students, who were more likely to volunteer and would spend more time volunteering than people in paid work. Obvious stuff, perhaps, if we know that lack of time is a reason people don’t volunteer, but it does show a highly-engaged group of young people and suggests an important role for schools, colleges and universities in facilitating volunteering, something that has been recognised by the #iwill campaign.

What should volunteer-involving organisations do now?

There’s a wealth of information and insight in this report for anyone working with or supporting volunteers and I think there’s three things you could do now. Firstly, take a look at the opportunities you offer volunteers and ask yourself how flexible they really are. Secondly, explore some of the good practice about how to involve volunteers in new ways (family volunteering in the National Trust and micro-volunteering spring to mind) and ask whether you could do anything similar. And thirdly, kick off a debate about volunteer management within your organisation. To what extent are you geared up to respond to the changing way in which people are volunteering, particularly if these trends continue?


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Avatar photo 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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