National Volunteering Forum: Volunteering and wellbeing

We might all think that volunteering – through meeting new people, learning new skills and getting involved in your community – is good for wellbeing, but is there any evidence that backs this up? And how can charities measure the wellbeing benefits of their volunteering projects?

On 9 February we brought together more than 50 organisations to discuss all this at our National Volunteering Forum.

What does the evidence say?

First up, we heard from Ingrid Abreu Scherer, programme manager at the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, who talked through the existing evidence on volunteering and wellbeing. You can see all the slides from the day here.

Although volunteering can be linked to increased life satisfaction, happiness and better mental health, the strength of these relationships depends on a whole range of factors, including the frequency of volunteering and motivations for doing so.

Interestingly, Ingrid also highlighted how the relationship between volunteering and improved wellbeing only becomes strong for participants above the age of 40. This impact of volunteering on the lives of older people is something Emily Georghiou from the Centre for Ageing Better also discussed. In her presentation, she explained how although we are growing older, we are not getting healthier. The social connections and a sense of purpose that volunteering brings can go some way to address this.

Despite offering us a huge amount to think about, Ingrid is clear that to get a better understanding of the overall picture, a systematic review of the existing evidence is needed.

Case studies from nature and heritage

Dominic Higgins from the Wildlife Trusts shared insights from a recent report on Wildlife Trusts programmes which found volunteering in nature to be associated with improved health and wellbeing – particularly for those starting with low levels of wellbeing.

Given such strong results, and that some participants are referred by GPs, there are interesting implications for how the NHS could incorporate a natural health service as part of its mental health provision.

We also heard from Danielle Garcia from if: volunteering for wellbeing, who reflected on her experience coordinating a volunteering project across 10 heritage sites in Manchester. The project reached almost 250 people over three years and 75% of participants reported significantly improved wellbeing. Danielle also shared this video of participant interviews, which was genuinely moving and one of the best examples of volunteer stories we’ve seen.

Measuring the impact

Charities are likely to know whether they are making an impact on volunteers’ lives, but proving this to external bodies is difficult. Another impressive aspect of the if: volunteering for wellbeing project is that they were able to measure their impact in financial terms, reporting a social return on investment of £1.97m from an initial investment of £557,200.

Neil Pratt, chief economist at Pro Bono Economics, further explained the different ways charities can quantify the impact of their programmes- including through the subjective wellbeing approach. Their recent report for City Year UK on the impact of their full-time social action programme is an excellent example of showing the impact that volunteering can have.

See you next time

Thanks to all speakers and delegates for a great day of discussion and learning. We’d also like to give special thanks to Elevate for delivering a fantastic wellbeing session for delegates.

We run the National Volunteering Forums three times a year across England. You can see previous topics we’ve covered here.

Our next Forum will take place on 15 May in London and will focus on GDPR and the volunteer journey. Save the date and make sure you’re signed up to updates from the volunteering team to know when tickets are released.

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Will Downs Up until July 2018, Will supported NCVO’s policy work on volunteering development. His interests include the role of volunteering in public services and removing barriers to youth volunteering. He produced the monthly volunteering round-up blog and supported Volunteers’ Week.

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