Over the past two years, the number of people volunteering in England has dropped quite sharply. According to the Government’s Community Life Survey 2021/22, only 16 per cent took part in formal volunteering (that is, through an organisation or group) at least once a month in the previous 12 months, down from 23 per cent in 2019-2020. What’s more, preliminary results from NCVO’s Time Well Spent present a scene where satisfaction with volunteering has declined, and various local reports show voluntary organisations do not have enough people coming forward. So, why is this happening, and where can we go from here?
The impact of Covid and the cost-of-living crisis on volunteering
Covid has clearly had a huge effect. In lockdown many volunteering activities were shut down, and vulnerable volunteers were shielded. But, given the amazing responses by volunteers and the headlines in the press, we might have thought a consequence of the pandemic would be positive for volunteering. It was volunteering in many ways that got us through: from those who were organised online to run errands and deliver medicines as well as those who organised community responses, giving neighbourly support, in some cases inspired by radical approaches to mutual aid. We might have been waiting for the chance to get back to the volunteering we were used to.
It is accepted now that a consequence of the lockdowns was that people broke the habit of turning up and helping out, probably losing the friendship networks which supported them. Perhaps people came to the point where they felt they’d done it for long enough.
The cost-of-living crisis is highlighted as responsible for the drop in volunteers. People need to work longer hours; families can’t afford to give time. People can’t afford the outlay the volunteering costs them; the Time Well Spent survey shows only 55 per cent of volunteers say their organisation would reimburse expenses.
But I suspect if we investigated further we’d find deeper issues. We’ve been through the trauma of the pandemic. The government banned socialising for months at a time. There have been periods of time when – at least where I live – people took steps round each other in the street to make two yards of social distance. Being close to other people has been a risk.
As I see it, we are still recovering. Unprecedented numbers are off sick from their employment, and I hear discussions of how employees are putting their own well-being ahead of prioritising their job, more so than before. Do people need time to be self-centred?
What does this confusing state of society imply for volunteer recruitment?
I don’t see a straightforward solution. My observations suggest organisations will need to work on their specific and local situations and revive their networks and communities.
There may be tensions in different approaches to be faced. For example, on one hand, potential volunteers are feeling unable to give as much time as they did and so ask for more flexible and time-limited volunteering opportunities. This would need detailed management of tasks for volunteers in a far-reaching system.
But on the other hand, as the pandemic has broken the habits of volunteering and social contacts, then maybe volunteer-involving organisations need to re-create social and communal support and root their volunteering in this environment. Volunteering for them may need to be not a portfolio of tasks but an activity integrated with service-users and local community.
Whichever, we need to recall two major negatives of volunteers’ experience: feeling their time is being wasted; and feeling it is too much like employment. How do we balance that?
We should recall too the long-standing question of how far in recruiting volunteers we aim to retain them for our organisation? Or how far are we content if they leave having had a good experience and adding to the community of potential volunteers?
There’s no need to panic
Studies of voluntary action in disasters suggest having confidence in people’s capabilities in communities, but the problem can then be how formal organisations – including governmental and infrastructure bodies – join up with ongoing support. Recovery may take more time.
In recruiting and managing volunteers, a range of approaches and methods have been developed over the years, which can help with these challenges and which are discussed in the book I co-wrote The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook, which is available to order.