Pale, male and stale? What I learned while researching diversity and volunteering

While working on Getting Involved (PDF, 3.4MB), a report we published in 2017, we looked at the different ways people get involved in society, where they do it and whether it has changed. These are the top three things I learned about who gets involved, which I also presented at a session on volunteering and diversity at the NCVO Annual Conference last week.

1. There is a lack of diversity in who gets involved

When we looked at the demographics of people who get involved, including gender, age, ethnicity, levels of education and socio-economic background, we found that there is a clear lack of diversity and that very specific types of people get involved the most. Research by the Third Sector Research Centre (PDF, 580KB) suggests that there is a section of the population – the ‘civic core’ – that contributes a disproportionate amount of time to volunteering and civic participation as well as charitable giving. This civic core, for instance, makes up 36% of the population but accounts for 87% of all volunteering hours.

People who belong to the civic core most often:

  • are middle-aged,
  • are well-educated (34% have a degree or higher vs 17% of non-core engaged / 11% of disengaged)
  • have well paid jobs (51% earn a high salary vs 32% of non-core engaged / 18% of disengaged).

2. Largest differences concern socio-economic status and education

The largest differences in participation rates relate to the different levels of education and socio-economic status. For example, people with higher levels of education were more often found to formally volunteer on a regular basis than people with lower levels of education or no qualifications. And there are similar trends for other types of activities, including charitable giving, political action or personal boycotts, where people with higher levels of education and from well-resourced backgrounds are more likely to get involved.

3. Formal activities are more exclusive

Differences in participation rates between higher and lower levels of education are smaller for informal volunteering (that involves giving unpaid help to someone who is not a relative) than formal volunteering (that takes place in the context of a group or organisation) or trusteeship and involvement in political action, including voting or campaigning. This is also true for differences between social grades and ethnic groups, suggesting that more formal activities present more barriers to getting involved.

Research from the Charity Commission that came out last year confirmed that there is a lack of diversity among charity trustees. According to their report, the majority of trustees are white, male, older, and have above average income and levels of education.

So how do we increase diversity in volunteering?

Individual context is key to understanding people’s involvement: it changes over time according to people’s age, life stage, personal situations and interests. It also reflects wider social trends. For instance, activities involving money, such as charitable giving, echo broader patterns in income distribution.

However, there are ways organisations can address this lack of diversity, including by:

  • making diversity a top priority for your organisation
  • tackling their own prejudices and biases
  • finding out why people are not interested
  • removing barriers and offer more flexible opportunities with different levels of formality
  • changing the way they communicate about volunteering, to make it relevant to people’s lives and appealing.

Watch the NCVO blog for more strategic and practical thinking and guidance on how to increase diversity among volunteers.

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Lisa Hornung is a data and research manager in the research team at NCVO. She leads on the data collection, analysis and communication of the UK Civil Society Almanac. More widely, she helps to ensure that NCVO remains at the forefront of voluntary sector data collection and analysis.

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