What happened to volunteering during the pandemic?

62% of adults in England volunteered their time at least once in the last year. 42% did so at least once a month.

These figures, from the recently released Community Life Survey 2020/21 [1], are unchanged on the year before. But these headline numbers mask a huge shift in the: 

  • types of volunteering people have been doing
  • who has been doing it. 

In fact, the covid-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown has led to the most rapid changes in volunteering patterns since the survey began in 2013.

In this blog, we explore some of the key findings from the latest data, looking especially at big shifts in types of volunteering, changes in volunteer profile in terms of age and employment, and what the future might hold for volunteering as we come out of lockdown.

A fall in formal and a rise in informal volunteering

There was a substantial fall in formal volunteering through a club, group, or organisation. Whereas in 2019/20, 23% of adults did so at least once a month and 37% had done so at least once in the year. This year, those figures fell to 17% and 30% respectively – meaning about a fifth fewer people volunteering.

On the other hand, there was a big increase in regular informal volunteering: offering unpaid help to someone who is not a relative. In 2019/20, 28% of adults did so once a month, but this year that had risen to 33% – or about a fifth more people doing so. The proportion of those doing so at least once a year remained steady at just over half. This suggests that individuals who already volunteered informally increased the frequency of their support, as opposed to an increase in the numbers of people doing it.

These changes are not too surprising. With many venues closed for much of the year, there were few opportunities for popular types of formal volunteering including in the arts, culture and entertainment.

On the other hand, many people stepped up within their communities to offer support to their neighbours. This likely explains the growth in informal volunteering and reflects existing evidence that there was a huge outpouring of community support immediately following the first lockdown.

However, it's worth remarking that the existence of mutual aid groups – often relatively informal community groups, established to make sure people could access support during lockdown – blurs the line between formal and informal volunteering.

Understanding who volunteers

Those aged 65-74 have always had the highest rates of volunteering of all types: most are retired and have free time, but are also more likely to be physically fit than those aged over 75. But over the last year, this age group saw some of the largest drops in formal volunteering and very little increase in informal volunteering. 

As a result, the 'volunteering gap' between younger and older people narrowed over the last year. This may be because many older people were isolating during this time, and younger groups stepped up to offer support to those who were isolated.

There was a particularly pronounced increase in the proportion of unemployed people who volunteered. While the number of people across all employment statuses who volunteered informally increased by about a fifth, there was a massive 43% increase for those who were unemployed. Likewise, formal volunteering fell by about a fifth on average, but it increased by 10% for the unemployed.

Unemployment increased from about 4% to a peak of about 5% during 2020 – meaning many more people finding themselves without work. One explanation for the growth in volunteering by unemployed people might be that those recently unemployed took up volunteering instead while waiting for an improvement in the jobs market.

There were also different patterns for those living in more or less deprived areas. Those living in the least deprived areas had larger falls in regular formal volunteering – perhaps reflecting the types of volunteering on offer in those areas.

But they also had the largest increases in informal volunteering. It's not clear why this is the case, but it could reflect that those in less deprived areas were more likely to be able to work remotely, and therefore available to help their neighbours more.

The future for volunteering

The shift in volunteering patterns over the last year is backed up by other sources of research such as the Respond, Recover, Reset project by Nottingham Trent University, Sheffield Hallam University and NCVO. In September, 27% of organisations said that volunteering had decreased over the last month, and this remained similar through until January. 

Since February, this decline lessened as the country came out of lockdown, reaching 18% in May. Those who said volunteering has increased rose from 16% in September to 23% in May – with more organisations saying volunteering had increased than decreased since April.

This research also finds that as we come out of lockdowns, we're seeing a recovery in formal volunteering. Voluntary organisations welcoming their volunteers back should continue to focus on making sure volunteering is safe, accessible, and enjoyable. Moreover, many people started volunteering for the first time during covid-19, and the coming months may present an excellent opportunity to retain them in the future. 

The Mobilising UK Voluntary Action briefing Volunteering in England during covid-19 addresses how organisations can bring back their volunteers safely and sustainably, meet their diversity and inclusion goals, and collaborate with others towards recovery.

[1] The Community Life Survey is an annual survey run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS). Since 2013 it has tracked trends in community engagement, volunteering and social cohesion. 

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Anya Martin Anya is the research and insight manager responsible for the quantitative research pipeline, including the UK Civil Society Almanac and our various voluntary sector surveys. Anya joined NCVO in April 2021 after working in research and policy roles across several voluntary and housing sector organisations.

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