Can the “Big Help Out” reverse the decline in volunteering?

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Woman with dreadlocks and man in yellow t-shirt-sorting clothes standing next to each other
Woman with dreadlocks and man in yellow t-shirt-sorting clothes standing next to each other

By Professor John Mohan, Director of the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham

On the back of the coronation of King Charles, a number of the UK’s most prominent volunteer-involving charities have launched a national volunteering initiative, the Big Help Out. Simultaneously a celebration of volunteering and an attempt to inspire people to engage in it, organisers anticipate that over 6 million people will participate in volunteering opportunities over the coronation holiday weekend. This would represent roughly one-quarter of the adult population who engage in volunteering at least once in a typical year; what cannot be known with certainty is how many people will be volunteering for the first time. However, some indications can be provided based on recent previous experiences.

This is not the first such initiative to expand volunteering in recent times. There have been attempts to mobilise large numbers of volunteers to support major sporting events such as the Commonwealth or Olympic Games. Central government has got in on the act, notably through the “Big Society” initiatives of the post-2010 Coalition government, which also introduced its National Citizen Service scheme to  help engage young people in voluntary action in their communities. There is also a wider group of organisations which promotes “youth social action”. Focussing specifically on the NHS, Helpforce was established in 2016, to accelerate the growth of volunteering. The Covid pandemic itself also prompted a major report on community-led social renewal which envisaged a major role for volunteers. These examples highlight the universal faith in the power of volunteering though the underlying motivations are heterogeneous. They encompass capitalising on the feelgood factor of major events or celebrations, targeting groups perceived as having below-average rates of participation, acknowledging the need for support for a key public service experiencing almost no growth in its resources, responding to a national public health crisis, and proposing a marked shift in the balance between public and voluntary initiative.

Whatever their origins and intentions, none have thus far led to a significant upturn in volunteering rates (as measured by the proportions of citizens engaged in it). If anything, trends have been steadily downwards since the early 2000s, according to reliable national social surveys. Authoritative analysis shows that the positive philosophy underlying the Big Society was undermined by austerity measures and reductions in local government funding. Recent reports suggest a decline in volunteering as compared with pre-pandemic levels and robust government social surveys also paint a pessimistic picture. If we consider “formal volunteering” – giving help in a structured organisational setting, such as a charity or social enterprise – and look at change over time, striking findings emerge. The proportion of the population in England engaged in this activity on at least an annual basis varied between 37 and 45% from 2001 (when the Citizenship Survey, which measures volunteering) was first conducted, but the figure reported for 2021-22 was only 30% of the adult population. For those volunteering at least monthly, the proportionate drop was greater still – from 29% to just 17%.

While a general decline has been noted, less has been said about variations between groups of the population. In 2001, for the population aged under 65, between 37 and 44% engaged in formal volunteering at least once a year. By the time of the 2021-22 survey, the figures were between 27 and 32%. The exception was the 25-34 age group, for which only 19% reported volunteering, compared to 37% in 2001. So, for that group, volunteering has just about halved, in a decade. In contrast, for those aged over 75, volunteering rates remained constant, at just over one-quarter of that group.

The full data have yet to be released for analysis, but a decline of this magnitude is important. Firstly, it’s too large to be explained in terms of changing understandings of the terminology used in surveys (it’s sometimes said that younger age groups don’t identify with the notion of “volunteering”, but actually they aren’t asked about it in surveys; the questions approach the topic indirectly and ask you to report instances of giving “unpaid help”). Secondly, volunteering is a habitual behaviour, and the habit is usually acquired early in life – one study showed that people who had volunteered in early adulthood were statistically speaking much more likely to continue to do so when surveyed nearly three decades later. Thirdly, previous research shows how adverse economic events have a negative impact on civic engagement – often, likewise, measurable at some remove in terms of time. Sociologists in the late 1950s were already pointing out the importance of “orderly careers” as a basis for engagement in voluntary action. Today’s labour market, and more generally the social and political environment, are anything but orderly and predictable, and those younger age groups have borne the brunt of them. It seems highly likely that these conditions are inhibiting the extent to which those groups are participating in voluntary action, and it is likely to take far more than monarchical endorsement to rectify the situation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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