Volunteering in the public sector: What we’ve learned

Today, we’re launching our new research report on volunteering in the public sector. This is the second of our focused Time Well Spent reports on the volunteer experience, exploring different themes from our national survey of over 10,000 adults across Great Britain. The first focused follow-up report, released last June, was on employer-supported volunteering (PDF, 1.5MB).

Our original Time Well Spent report (PDF, 2MB) showed that public sector volunteers make up around one in six (17%) of all those who had given time in the previous 12 months. The scale of public sector volunteering shouldn’t be underestimated: there are around 350,000 school governors in England alone, 39,000 volunteers in police services, and many hundreds of thousands more contribute to public service organisations in settings from hospitals and libraries to law courts.

This report draws on further analysis of the Time Well Spent data, alongside literature from different sub-sectors and focus groups with volunteers giving time to public sector organisations. Our aim was to inform practice and policy in this area by shedding more light on the experience of public sector volunteers, including their motivations, perceptions of their roles, and relationship with paid staff. This work focuses on people giving their time directly through public services, rather than, say, a charity operating within a hospital.

What we learned

Here are some of the findings which stood out most from the research.

Public sector volunteers are driven by cause over organisation

Public sector volunteers are motivated primarily by wanting to make a difference – in that sense, they don’t differ from other volunteers. However, our research highlights that for public sector volunteers in particular, volunteering for a cause of personal importance is also a significant motivation (both to start volunteering and to continue), and appears to be a bigger driver for volunteers than a personal attachment to the organisation itself. Additionally, most do not actively look to volunteer for a public sector organisation.

Most are satisfied – but less so than civil society volunteers

Overall satisfaction is high among public sector volunteers (94% very or fairly satisfied), but they lag behind civil society volunteers especially for those who are ‘very’ satisfied (47% public sector vs 58% civil society). They are also less likely to continue volunteering in the next 12 months. Organisation and management of volunteers is highlighted as a particular challenge. Public sector volunteers are twice as likely as civil society volunteers to say that their volunteering is ‘too structured or formalised’ (20% vs 10%) and almost a third feel that there is ‘too much bureaucracy’ (32% v 21%). The research suggests that the nature of public sector organisations can make it difficult to meet volunteers’ expectations, and raises questions about how organisations can be flexible and balanced in the way they manage and organise their volunteers.

Relationships between volunteers and paid staff relate to, but go beyond, distinctive roles

The relationships between volunteers and paid staff can play a key part in the volunteer experience, especially where they work closely together. In most cases, the boundaries between paid and volunteering roles are clear but tensions are more likely to occur where there is overlap or where volunteers undertake roles formerly done by paid staff. Our focus groups also show that where relationships are based on a feeling of mutual respect and appreciation, and where volunteers feel welcomed and supported, it can significantly contribute to a positive experience.

Volunteers are also conscious that morale levels among staff impact on them. It suggests that promoting an inclusive culture among staff, service users and volunteers alike – and investing in the training and support necessary to achieve this – may help foster positive relationships at all levels.

Growing pressures can impact on volunteer experience

While it’s not unique to public sector volunteers, a recurring theme from the focus groups was a feeling of growing pressure and a sense of expectation to give more time as the services they volunteered for came under financial pressure. For some, this diminished their enjoyment of their roles. Nearly a quarter (24%) of public sector volunteers report feeling like their volunteering is becoming ‘too much like paid work’. This feeling was associated with a sense of obligation combined with not being appreciated.

While organisations may be under pressure, creating an environment where volunteers can enjoy themselves and feel fulfilled and valued in what they do is perhaps even more important. As well as being the highest ranked benefit, our wider Time Well Spent findings highlighted that enjoyment is strongly associated both with volunteer satisfaction and retention.

What’s next

You can read the full findings from the report online and also download a PDF for offline reading. At the end of the report, we have included a table of questions for organisations to consider – both for practitioners and for decision-makers.

The next in the series of focused Time Well Spent reports will be on diversity and volunteering (read more about this research). You can contribute to this research and register your interest by filling in our form.

For any questions or comments, please email me at amy.mcgarvey@ncvo.org.uk or comment on Twitter @ncvoamy.

 

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Amy McGarvey Amy works as a research manager 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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