What does the future of volunteering look like?

Blog posts

7 Jun 2018

Joy WilliamsJoy Williams, Research Fellow

Volunteering rates are declining

When the Institute opened its doors in the late 1960s, volunteering infrastructure and volunteer bureaux were just becoming established. Into the 1970s, civic engagement was still at the fore and voluntary agencies were an ingrained part of society.

There are different measures of volunteering; formal and informal, frequency of activities or the time given to activities, or estimates of the monetary value of time given. While volunteering remains common in Britain, using many different measures, the consensus is that there has been a drop in the amount of time dedicated to volunteering since the turn of the millennium.

How does volunteering participation differ by age?

In recent years, figures showed that more young people were regularly taking part in volunteering than ever before. Not only had participation rates increased, but the time given by individuals had also increased over the years. Office for National Statistics (ONS) data show that for young people aged 16-24, the mean minutes volunteering per day increased from 9 minutes in 2000 to 17 minutes in 2015. However, the most recent NCVO figures published in May this year show that this steady increase has been reversed.

Some young people get involved to support their personal development, to learn new skills and gain accreditations that employers are looking for, as I discussed in my previous blog. This is also supported by findings from an IES report for the Careers and Enterprise Company in 2017, which revealed the impact of volunteering for young people.  IES research for Vinspired, the volunteering charity for 14 to 25 year olds, showed that young people got involved with volunteering opportunities and social action campaigns in order to develop skills and personal attributes such as demonstrating commitment, enthusiasm and integrity, developing confidence and making a contribution to their community. Most important was their desire to help others.

The ONS also suggests that young people trying to secure employment could be a reason for the higher rates for young people compared to slightly older people: they have more time to devote to volunteering than the next age category (25-34) who become more embedded in work and family life. In fact, people aged 26-34 are the least likely to volunteer, so the high figures seen in youth volunteering dip in this age cohort.

Once in older age or retirement, volunteering rates recover, with people aged 65-74 having the highest rates of formal volunteering when evaluating the measures of at least once per month and at least once per year. It is widely understood that people in this age group will have more time available for voluntary activities. Motivations for this age group may differ from those for younger people and be more about filling their time and experiencing social contact.

How is volunteering changing?

One way of considering the volunteering that people are undertaking is to see how it can be classified by formality or the frequency of participation. Examples of formal volunteering brokered by organisations include Prince’s Trust Volunteers and Voluntary Service Overseas, while semi-formal volunteering might include sports event volunteering and volunteering organised as part of a course. Additionally, informal or one-off volunteering such as fundraising or litter-picking are prevalent and micro-volunteering can fit with busy lives. What might volunteering look like in the future?

The UK’s growing short-term and payment-by-task ‘gig economy’ labour market might align with an increase in micro-volunteering as this is characterised as convenient, flexible, and facilitated by technology and apps. IVO/NCVO defines micro-volunteering as ‘actions that can be completed in short, discrete periods of time’. Micro-volunteering is often episodic or one-off, rather than formal and long-term.

Lola Phoenix is Mencap’s digital manager. Working with micro-volunteers, often contributing remotely, has proven to be a great asset to her department. Lola says:

‘Digital volunteering is great for people who want to contribute towards an organisation but maybe don’t have the energy or time to do traditional, face-to-face volunteering.

‘I thought there must be others similar to me who have digitally-based skills or an interest in growing those skills, who have some spare time for a one-off project or a non-business-critical application that could pitch in.’

‘Most people who work in digital know that there are so many competing demands. Volunteers can help do things like Facebook cover videos, social media research and evergreen content writing, that you don’t always have the time to get to but would help improve the work you do now.’

Technology will continue to play an increasing role in facilitating volunteering. The internet is an amazing resource for connecting people. From information and awareness-raising campaigns, supported by media outlets and social media hashtags (including #SVW2018 and #iwill), that help people seek out opportunities and discover the benefits of volunteering, to apps that help volunteers track achievements – gamification and tracking challenges appeal to many, but in particular to young people.

Technology can also help people take part in activities not previously accessible to them. For example, in remote or geographically distant areas. An example here would include digital projects such as social media content creation, as Lola elaborates above.

No matter the changes in how volunteering opportunities are organised or publicised, these meaningful opportunities present benefits to all and the core values of volunteering, that it is time freely given to support other people, remain strong. While volunteering rates as a whole have been in decline, up until very recently, youth volunteering was on the rise. It will be interesting to see whether rates recover, and tellingly, whether tech-mediated volunteering supports this to happen.                                                                       

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.