We have to change the way we think about, engage and report on volunteers

There has been coverage in Third Sector recently of the
Third Sector Research Centre’s findings about a civic core of volunteers. If you haven’t read it, here are some of the key points:

– 31%
of the population provide 87% of the volunteer hours

– Just
under 8% of the population provide almost 50% of the volunteer hours

– 63%
of the population provide just 13% of the volunteer hours

TSRC acknowledges that how we define a topic determines the
response received. This is what
accounts for substantially different headline levels of volunteering between
different surveys. It also
suggests that true levels of volunteering may be higher than these headline
figures we so often see debated in the sector media because “voluntary action
is something we dip in and out of depending on personal circumstances”.

So what does this mean for us in terms of volunteer

Some may take a positive view, like one of the comments to
the Third Sector online article mentioned earlier, which suggested that the
figures were very reassuring, with 19m people volunteering.

To me TSRC’s findings give some causes for concern:

– We
are reliant on worryingly few people for the significant contribution
volunteers make to our society

– Those
people are ‘traditional’ volunteers, people we have relied upon to shore up
voluntary effort because they have the time and inclination to make long term,
intensive commitments of the kind many organisations desire

– The
way we capture data about volunteering is ignoring the shifts to more flexible
volunteering, given by people in shorter bursts in order to fit with their
increasingly complex and time pressured lives

Put simply, if we are to grow a new civic core for the
future we have to change the way we think about, engage and report on

Instead of the dominant model sought by organisations being
one of long-term (often time intensive) volunteering, we need to think about how
we can fit what we need doing with people’s desire for more flexible, short-term opportunities to give time.

Having seen outpourings of spontaneous volunteering in the
wake of last month’s riots we should be asking how we can generate more of that
kind of voluntary effort and incorporate it into the work of our organisations,
rather than how can we convert such people to longer-term commitments.

For further reading on these issues and ideas on how
volunteering engagement might change I’d recommend a read of nfpSynergy’s 2005
report The 21st Century Volunteer and Volunteer Canada‘s 2011 report Bridging the Gap.

2 Responses to “We have to change the way we think about, engage and report on volunteers”

  1. carl allen

    Community self-help and self organised groups are not the same as individuals volunteering alone or in groups.

    Perhaps it is folly to study the level of one without the other.

  2. Dave Thomas

    It seesm to me that each study starts out with a fundamental problem – how they define “volunteering”. I constantly hear people deny that they are volunteering and insist that they are “just helping out” or “lending a hand”. I remain convinced that every survey I have ever read under-counts the real level of volunteering, active citizenship or that willingness to help.


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