How does volunteering impact volunteers? Five things to consider

john davies 96x96Before joining NCVO John worked in the research team of an education consultancy called The Key. A membership organisation for schools, it does events, best practice and research. He mainly focused on multi-academy trusts and school governance in his research.

Prior to this, he did various internships in policy and public affairs, including at Child Poverty Action Group, which was invaluable for the experience it gave him in the charity sector. During this, he was also completing his MA in public policy where he conducted research on free schools.

‘Volunteering is good not just for those it seeks to help, but also for the volunteers themselves’. Everyone will have either heard or said something similar at some point in their time in the charity sector, and you can understand why. It sounds like common sense: ‘doing good’ makes you feel good, can help improve your skills and form new connections with your community.

But what does the evidence actually say? Well, at NCVO we’ve looked at current research on the impact of volunteering on volunteers to understand whether the perceptions match reality. You can download the full research briefing (pdf, 240KB)for a deeper dive, but here’s five things I’ve learnt (and one reflection) from investigating the evidence.

1.     Be careful when talking about causation

The ‘easy bit’ is proving that volunteers are more likely to have better mental and physical health, and have higher levels of social connections, than others. What’s far more difficult is proving that volunteering causes these outcomes. Some research, for example, suggests that while volunteers have better physical health than others, this is due to healthier people being more likely to volunteer.

Evidence is stronger for mental health and wellbeing. One study demonstrates that, even when controlling for levels of self-esteem and social interaction, volunteers are less likely to suffer from depression. We should be careful, however, when making claims about causation. It’s hard to control for every factor that could lead to these sorts of outcomes.

2.     Volunteering can’t be a silver bullet for unemployment

Until recently, the UK government’s now discontinued Community Work Placement program mandated some unemployed people to volunteer as a requirement to receive benefits. Government has, under different banners, also promoted volunteering as a way for young people to build the skills that will help them begin careers.

While it’s true that volunteering can improve both people’s ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills (pdf, 730KB), evidence is weak for this actually leading to people finding work. This is not to say there is no value in volunteering if people are not in work, but we shouldn’t expect it to overcome factors beyond our control, like the cost of childcare, that can prevent people moving into work.

3.     Feeling appreciated and building relationships is important

I think it was Morrisey who said ‘I am human and I need to be loved’. It’s safe to say he probably wasn’t talking about volunteering in 1980s Manchester, but the principle seems to hold up for volunteers in the charity sector.

Older volunteers who feel appreciated for their contribution, for example, are more likely to have higher positive mental wellbeing than those who do not (pdf, 870KB). Other research suggests that feeling connected and forming relationships with beneficiaries leads to improved mental wellbeing for volunteers.

4.     Time given has an impact, we just don’t know how much

The basic principle of ‘enough, but not too much’ underpins the findings on how much volunteering is necessary before any positive effects are felt. But beyond this, things are a less clear.

While one study suggests that benefits to mental wellbeing appear after 100 hours of volunteering, but stop if people volunteer for over 800 hours a year, other research says that the benefits to mental health drop off beyond 100 hours a year. The findings are inconsistent.

We’d also do well to appreciate that the optimum level of time spent volunteering may differ with age and employment status: evidence shows that for unemployed people frequent volunteering can even reduce one’s chances of finding a job (pdf, 730KB), presumably because attention is diverted from job-hunting. Those in work, however, might be able to manage volunteering weekly without it negatively impacting their employment.

I feel well-justified in using a research favourite, here: ‘more research is needed in this area’.

5.     Motivations for volunteering matter

A split between volunteering for altruistic versus ‘self-enhancing’ reasons colours some of the research. Evidence suggests that those who volunteer for altruistic reasons report better social connectedness, levels of trust and mental wellbeing than those who do so for ‘self-enhancing’ reasons.

But it’s likely that people may have mixed motivations for volunteering. They might volunteer primarily to help others, but also expect to feel benefits themselves. Equally, one person’s definition of ‘altruism’ may look ‘self-enhancing’ to another. Evidence from a UK youth sports volunteering programme suggests that although some took part to boost their CVs, the programme still lead to greater feelings of altruism. It’s not black and white.

Keeping the balance

As you can see, while there are some clear messages from the evidence on impact on volunteers, there are areas where evidence is more mixed. It can be difficult isolating the impact that volunteering has on a people. We will continue to look out for new research in this area that might shed more light on the themes discussed in the briefing.

While it’s important for charities to understand and communicate the benefits to volunteers, we should also remember that the wider impact of volunteering is important too. People may seek out volunteering opportunities partly to receive benefits, such as improving their skills, but we know that they also volunteer to make a difference. Let’s keep that balance in mind.

Our forthcoming survey will look to delve deeper into both of these elements of the volunteer experience.

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