Volunteers Week: The Future of Volunteering?

Continuity and change in voluntary action RGB

Out now

This Volunteers Week, Rose Lindsey and John Mohan, co-authors of ‘Continuity and change in voluntary action’, part of the Third Sector Research Series and out now, look at the impact of political rhetoric and public attitudes on volunteering on levels of engagement.

Voluntary action has been a hotly-contested topic over the last 30 years. The International Labour Organisation sees it as an “essential renewable resource” for society. Margaret Thatcher, in her famous speech to the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, anticipated a demographic dividend from the retirement of active baby-boomers. Subsequent governments promoted voluntary action not only for its direct benefits (e.g. providing services) but latent impacts (e.g. on social capital, health and employability). The most recent manifestations of pro-voluntarist arguments have been the “big society” of David Cameron and the “shared society” of Theresa May. However, to what extent have several decades of such arguments and policies had impacts on levels of engagement?

There is certainly evidence that volunteering is a renewable resource if we look at statistics about the proportions who volunteer. These have remained steady for some 35 years, albeit with some fluctuations (a recession-induced decline and a short-term boost after the 2012 Olympics). Yet, despite Thatcher anticipating a significant increase in proportions of people volunteering, this hasn’t happened. Nor does it look as if the expansion of higher education – known to be a strong predictor of volunteering – has had much effect.

“…while many people dip into and out of volunteering, voluntary action is dominated by a small core of long-term volunteers.”

Our research demonstrates that while many people dip into and out of volunteering, voluntary action is dominated by a small core of long-term volunteers. In the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) –  the only significant longitudinal study asking questions about volunteering –  very small proportions of the population report volunteering in every survey wave. In a 12 year period (1996-2008) most people reported only intermittent volunteering. We can interpret this evidence in both a positive and negative light. For example, if we consider individuals’ contributions over their life courses, a much greater proportion of the population is involved in volunteering than is revealed by one-off cross-sectional surveys. The more challenging issue for voluntary organisations, however, concerns whether and how they can sustain that involvement over time.

When considering this question, it is useful to have insights derived from people’s own understandings of volunteering. We use extensive qualitative material from Mass Observation, tracking individuals’ accounts of the place of voluntary action and unpaid work in their lives. The material offers rich insights into writers’ individual trajectories into and out of volunteering, the social networks through which they became involved, their motivations, attitudes, and their views as to what voluntary action can and cannot do. Most strikingly, when asked about their involvement in unpaid work, or activities in their community, what they discuss first of all is unpaid care for relatives or neighbours. People prioritise what’s closest to home. This is hugely important in the context of great pressures on the social care system:  the prioritisation of unpaid care will limit the time and capacity that individuals have to engage in voluntary action in other parts of their communities.

“People prioritise what’s closest to home.”

Writers also exhibited a strong sense of scepticism about the conditions under which the public are asked to engage in voluntary action. Some writers articulated this very forcefully; for example one writer’s sole response,  to a question regarding whether she had heard of the “Big Society” was to write in uppercase letters:

“I HAVEN’T GOT A CLUE WHAT IT MEANS. NOBODY I’VE SPOKEN TO DON’T KNOW EITHER. IF IT’S ABOUT OUR PM SAYING WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER, IT’S A LAUGH”.

Other respondents articulated a sense of exhaustion – “my days of volunteering for anything are over” – and concern that calls for more volunteering would widen disparities between communities. There were also concerns iterated in the 1990s and again in the 2010s, about funding cuts and volunteers substituting the work of paid-staff. In this context, writers repeatedly argued for clear demarcation between what is the responsibility of public authorities to provide, and what should be expected of communities.

There is long-run stability in engagement, which is positive news. But given these strong views, and the recognition that the greatest burden of voluntary effort is being shouldered by relatively small subsets of the population, our study points to clear limits as to how far we might expect to increase engagement in volunteering further.

Continuity and change in voluntary action RGB

Continuity and change in voluntary action by Rose Lindsey and John Mohan with Elizabeth Metcalfe and Sarah Bulloch is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £60.00 or see more from the Third Sector Research Series.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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