Stepping into volunteers’ shoes: A national survey on the volunteer experience

When we discuss and debate volunteering, it’s easy to get drawn into seeing things from the organisational perspective, rather than that of volunteers themselves. This year, here at NCVO, we’re putting the focus back on volunteers through an exciting piece of research looking at their experience of volunteering, to see what learnings we can take to contribute to policy and practice across the sector.

What we’re doing: revisiting the volunteer experience

There’s no denying that there is a wealth of existing literature and data that paints a picture of what volunteering in this country looks like; notably, the government’s Community Life Survey provides reliable trend data on current rates of volunteering. Looking at both previous and current national surveys of volunteering, however, we discovered that an area no longer covered was the volunteer experience. This area was included back in 2007 in the Helping Out survey, covering different aspects, from how volunteers were being managed and supported to overall perceptions of their volunteering experiences.

We feel that there’s great value in shedding light on this area once again, 11 years on. We believe we have more to understand about the experience and impacts of volunteering from the volunteer perspective.

So, this year, we’ll be engaging volunteers across the country through a national survey to explore and understand their experience of volunteering. Through this research, our aim is to address knowledge gaps and add value by generating rich, practical insights for the sector.

What we’ve done so far: reviewing existing evidence and listening to the sector

As well as ensuring the research is not duplicating existing research and evidence, it’s important to us that it reflects the needs and interests of the voluntary sector.

So, over the last few weeks we’ve been reviewing existing literature, and listening to individuals, including volunteer managers and strategic leaders, from a range of organisations across different sectors and sizes, to understand what aspects of the volunteer experience are of interest and value, to help inform the scope and shape of the survey.

As the wish list has been growing, so too has the need to remind ourselves of not trying to do too much, and instead focusing on getting something meaningful from it all.  So, the next stage of prioritising what we’ve gathered and defining the scope of the survey presents us with an exciting challenge.

What we’ve learned: unanswered questions in a changing and complex environment

In the meantime, a few things I have taken away so far from this listening exercise:

  • Whilst the changing nature of volunteering participation is not in itself ‘new’ news, organisations are still navigating what it means for them. I was struck by the range of questions raised – from the small and specific (do volunteers want certificates for recognition and reward?) to the big and broad (how do volunteers perceive themselves and what does volunteering mean to them?). These highlighted the extent to which the changing environment has led to challenging and questioning previous assumptions and knowledge. It raises the overall question: what are volunteers’ expectations and needs now, and are these being met?
  • Stakeholders highlighted the need to recognise the volunteering experience as more than just a simple interaction, but a journey that might span different life stages, organisations, and more than one form of volunteering. As we look across different volunteer journeys, we might ask, as one strategic director we spoke to put it: ‘what makes it sticky for some, but passing for others?’ It’s clear that understanding the volunteer experience in its totality is not just a nice-to-have, but a must-have, in unpicking this complex area fully.
  • We need to understand what’s not working as well as what is. There is a clear will to confront some of the more challenging issues and understand what we can learn. In particular, something that struck me was the real desire to go beyond just providing a ‘quality’ volunteering experience for those who are already volunteering, and understand what we can learn to develop an attractive, enabling and accessible volunteering experience for all, in particular those facing the most significant barriers.

What’s still to come: watch this space

We’ll be launching the survey in the spring, and undertaking follow up research activities over the summer and autumn, with a view to publishing the research findings later in the year. Ensuring the findings are genuinely practical and insightful is really important to us, so we’ll be communicating about our progress and opportunities to engage with the research throughout the year.

Have any questions, comments or views to feed in?  Drop me an email at amy.mcgarvey@ncvo.org.uk

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Amy McGarvey Amy works as a Senior Research Officer and is leading on NCVO’s major piece of research about the volunteer experience. She also contributes to other parts of NCVO’s research programme on voluntary sector and volunteering.

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