Time Well Spent: What we’ve learned about the volunteer experience

Today we launch Time Well Spent, our report detailing the findings from our national survey on the volunteer experience. We’ve spent most of last year thinking about how people experience volunteering, which was previously covered in a national survey over a decade ago.

We’ve thought about what to ask people, how to ask it, and engaged volunteer-involving organisations to understand what they most need to know.

Now we have the views of over 10,000 people across Britain. So, what have we learned? With such a large survey, it’s too much to cover in a blog post, but here are some of the key findings:

A (mostly) good news story

In uncertain times, we welcome good news. The vast majority (96%) of volunteers who had given time over the last 12 months said they are very or fairly satisfied with their main volunteering experience.

The findings, which focus only on volunteering that takes place through groups, clubs and organisations, highlight the excellent work of volunteer-involving organisations. They show that most volunteers enjoy the experience and feel well supported and that they are recognised enough for their volunteering. Seven in 10 volunteers say they have or would recommend volunteering to friends or family.

The findings also reveal challenges, but millions of people across Britain enjoying themselves while making a difference is cause for celebration.

A balancing act

The survey findings highlight the dynamic nature of volunteering with most people moving in and out of participation over their lifetime. These different volunteer journeys mean volunteer-involving organisations have a variety of expectations to meet shaped by a range of factors, including what they do, as well as demographic characteristics like age. For example, around a quarter (23%) of 18 to 34 year-olds said that ‘they expected the process of getting involved to be quicker’; compared with just 9% of those aged 55 and over.

In trying to meet the range of expectations, organisations need to strike a careful balance when it comes to managing volunteers. In particular, there is a tension between being organised, which over a third of volunteers (35%) think could be improved, and not becoming too bureaucratic, structured or formalised.

A potential solution to the loneliness crisis?

Aware of the importance of social connections in today’s society, we asked people whether their volunteering helps them feel less isolated. Over two-thirds (68%) said that it did.

We’ve talked previously about how volunteering might help people to connect, in relation to young people in particular. Our survey seems to confirm this, with 77% of 18 to 24 year-olds and 76% of 25 to 34 year-olds agreeing that their volunteering helps them feel less isolated – the highest across all age groups.

However, in doing this we need to ensure that volunteering reaches different people within our society. At the moment it seems that it doesn’t, with 40% of those from a lower socio-economic background (C2DE) say they have never volunteered through a group, club or organisation, compared with 25% of those from a higher socio-economic group (ABC1).

A different way of looking at time

To increase diversity, we need to tackle the barriers that stop people getting involved and, as a major barrier, the issue of time should not be ignored. However, among those who have never volunteered common reasons for not doing so also include never having thought about it and never being asked. So, more awareness and encouragement could help people to take that first step.

When it comes to time, we need to think about what it really means when people cite ‘doing other things with my spare time’ as their main reason for not getting involved. It highlights the importance of providing opportunities that resonate with people’s lives and make their volunteering feel worth their while. The good news is that most of those who volunteer already seem to think it is, although we need to keep working at this as around one in five (19%) say they ‘feel it’s becoming too much like paid work.’ How time feels is important too.

When we take all we’ve learned about the volunteer experience, our simple answer is that at its best it is ‘time well spent’ (hence the name of this research report). We also think it has the potential to be so for many future volunteers as well as for those who already give their time.

Quality, not just quantity

We’ve identified 8 key factors that we think make up a quality experience, which we hope will be a starting point for practitioners and policymakers thinking about how they can support volunteers.

While we know that many stop volunteering due to changing circumstances, the survey findings also highlight that the quality of the experience matters for future involvement. A good quality volunteering experience for an individual is likely to encourage them to come back to volunteering over their lifetime.

time well spent volunteer experience

The summary and full report, together with our thoughts on the implications for the sector, can be found at www.ncvo.org.uk/timewellspent. The data tables and the questionnaire will also be made available in the coming weeks.

This year, we’ll build on the findings to produce several smaller reports focusing on key topics such as employer-supported volunteering, public services, and diversity.

We hope that all these resources will be useful. As ever, research is only worthwhile when it’s taken off the page and into real-life practice and policy. At NCVO, we look forward to supporting volunteer-involving organisations to do that.

If you have any questions, please contact me 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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