High number of volunteers driven by community cuts.

Published (Updated )

  • Wave of first-time volunteers prompted to step forward in response to issues such as reduced funding for community services, strain on the NHS and care for the elderly
  • New cohort of volunteers still report reduced stress levels (34 per cent) and feel happier (65 per cent) due to their experience
  • Work (40 per cent) and family (20 per cent ) pressures most significant barriers to volunteering, with 35-54 year-olds and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds least likely to have chance to participate

The equivalent of 1.1m new volunteers stepped forward for the first time in the past year, with social issues such as community cuts, concern for the elderly and disconnection from communities being significant motivators.

This is according to the new report from the Royal Voluntary Service, First Timers: Kickstarting a Volunteering Revolution.Authored by Dr Justin Davis-Smith, Centre for Charity Effectiveness at Cass Business School, Nick Ockenden and Dr Helen Timbrell, the report investigates the motivations and barriers faced by those volunteering for the first time. The data is based on a sample of 4,000 UK adults, boosted by 500 people who volunteered for the first time since 2013.

Significant driver is first-time volunteers

A significant driver for the new cohort of first-time volunteers – equivalent to 2.4 per cent of the UK adults population – is responding to urgent social need. Nearly a third (29 per cent) of first-timers said their decision to volunteer was influenced by cuts to community projects and local services, with a similar proportion (27 per cent) citing concern for the elderly and care cuts. Meanwhile, one in five (20 per cent) were motivated in part by a visible rise in homelessness and poverty in their community.

Furthermore, volunteers also consider supporting the NHS (45 per cent), and the care sector (44 per cent) to be the greatest areas of future need for the UK too. As a result, among all new, active volunteers, a third (32 per cent) are set to increase their involvement over the next 12 months while more than half (53 per cent) intend to retain their existing level of commitment.

However, volunteers are not driven solely by altruism, and in order to tempt more to give their time, organisations must also appeal to personal motivations. First-time volunteers reported that wanting to meet people and make friends (36 per cent) and simply to have fun (30 per cent) were also significant factors in making the first step. This may be influenced by the fact that nearly one in five (18 per cent) felt cut off from their community before volunteering for the first time.

Among all volunteers, respondents felt more useful (60 per cent), fulfilled (56 per cent), socially aware (53 per cent) and more connected to the local community (52 per cent) after their experience. Many also reported health and wellbeing benefits, with just under one third (29 per cent) saying they felt more mentally calm due to volunteering.

First-timers report improved wellbeing after volunteering

First-timers were slightly more likely to say they experienced improved wellbeing after volunteering however, with 34 per cent of this group feeling less stressed, compared with 21 per cent of volunteers overall, with similar results when looking at positive effect on physical health (42 per cent vs 26 per cent) and happiness (65 per cent vs 49 per cent). Furthermore, almost four in ten (37 per cent) first-timers said their volunteering had made them less lonely.

Despite the reported benefits on offer, many still struggle to overcome barriers to volunteering. Chief among them was work commitments (cited by 40 per cent of respondents), wanting to do other things with any spare time (23 per cent), children and home responsibilities (20 per cent), or just never having thought about it (20 per cent).

These time factors may explain a dip in volunteering rates among 35-54 year-olds – 52 per cent of this age group have volunteered at some point in their life, compared with 58 per cent of both the 18-24 year-olds and 55+ cohort. The growth of digital and micro volunteering, which enables people to engage at a time and place that suits them, aims to support these busy groups.

Stretched resources are also likely to be fuelling the clear link between participation and social class. Whilst only about three in ten (34 per cent) of people from the highest socio-economic groups have never volunteered, the figure was double (56 per cent) for those from the lowest groups. Given the established correlation between loneliness and economic disadvantage, the report suggested there is further reason to try and open up volunteering to those outside the middle class “civic core”.

"Organisations need to play up the personal benefits of volunteering"

Dr Justin Davis-Smith, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness, Cass Business School, said:

“While it is great to see a new swathe of inspired people giving their time and energy, volunteering cannot be a cure-all for public services. Our report shows that if we are to make the most of the huge opportunities that volunteering can offer, organisations need not only make volunteering more accessible and flexible but play up the personal benefits of volunteering – in health terms, socially, in connecting to local community, and perhaps, most strikingly, in terms of enjoyment and fun.”

Catherine Johnstone CBE, Royal Voluntary Service, Chief Executive, said:

“By taking an in-depth look at those who have recently volunteered for the first time, we can begin to better understand the complex tapestry of motivations and emotions that underpin the decision. Similarly, it is an opportunity to examine the barriers that can prevent people from taking that step forward and giving their time. Our challenge is to inspire more people across the UK than ever before, from more diverse backgrounds, to volunteer. Together, we can change lives, change communities and change society.”

To find out more and view the First Timers: Kickstarting a Volunteering Revolution in full, please visit here.

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