Volunteering falls once again

In late July the government released the latest set of Community Life Survey data which included up-to-date figures on levels volunteering. The release was very low-key, in contrast with the previous release 18 months ago when a much-heralded post-Olympic rise in volunteering levels was championed as proof that the Big Society was working.

Not only was the most recent release much more muted; but the data is presented in a much less accessible format of Excel spreadsheets compared to the nice, easy to understand graphs of 2013.

Why the change? Well, it seems volunteering has unfortunately not continued the upward trend of 2012 but fallen. 41 per cent of people now do formal volunteering at least once a year (down from 44 per cent) and 27 per cent at least once a month (down from 29 per cent).

Seems like my predictions from February 2013 were true, although I take no pleasure in that prediction being realised.

Looking at the data, the 2012 peak saw volunteering levels reach the same heights as 2005 (UK year of the volunteer) but the subsequent fall has been more marked, dropping 3 per cent for formal volunteering at least once a year compared to a 1 per cent drop between 2005 and 2007/08.

Nick Ockendon of the Institute for Volunteering Research has produced a good analysis of the latest data, its statistical significance and what it might mean. Like Nick, I don’t think there is much cause for concern – if we just consider this data. However, when we contrast it with changes in the amount of time people give and our reliance on a small proportion of the population who give the most time as volunteers, then we do need to be concerned.


  • We have not seen any sustained positive changes in levels of volunteering since 2005.
  • Those who do volunteer are giving less and less time.
  • A sizeable proportion of the civic core many organisations rely upon as the mainstay of their volunteer base are ageing in place.
  • Many organisations aren’t adapting their volunteering offer to the new reality of 21st century life.

Put these (and other factors together) and I think the need for change is screaming at us if we just want to sustain volunteering in the future, let alone grow it. And remember, that’s not just because volunteering is a sign of a healthy civil society but because those volunteers are the vast majority of the sector workforce. In short, without volunteers, the reach, importance, impact and value of the voluntary and community sector is greatly diminished.

So, as everyone heads off to their summer break, I want to give you three things to reflect on that I hope will focus you on rising to the challenge of 21st century volunteer engagement:

  1. Do you understand all your current volunteers well enough as individuals to know if they are in the right roles, have other skills and talents they could be using to better effect, have other things going on in their lives that are or have the potential to affect their availability and willingness to keep giving time, either in their current role or a new one?
  2. Do you know enough about those people who have stopped volunteering with you to know why they stopped, whether they might want to start again (perhaps in a different role) and do you have systems in place to capture, track and use this data?
  3. Does your organisation have volunteering as a core strategic priority so that planning volunteer engagement for the future is as integral as planning for how you’ll raise the money to pay your staff?

If the answer is no to one or more, then you have work to do when the holidays end.

If you can answer yes to at least one then be encouraged – I suspect you are ahead of the curve.

If you answer yes to all three then get in touch because I’d love to hear how you’re doing it.