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Public sector volunteers less satisfied

Overall picture positive but research reveals areas for improvement to allow public sector volunteering programmes to fulfil their potential, says NCVO

People giving their time to public services, such as hospital and library volunteers, police specials, magistrates and school governors, are less satisfied with their experience than those giving their time to charities, new research has revealed. One in four (24%) say that their experience is ‘too much like paid work’.

Levels of satisfaction are strong among public sector volunteers but they are more likely to report that their experience is too bureaucratic and less likely to feel a sense of belonging to the organisation they’re volunteering with.

Public sector volunteers were also more likely than charity volunteers to plan to quit their volunteering, the research reveals.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), which represents charities and volunteering, said that public sector volunteering holds immense potential to make a difference, that these were not insoluble problems and that all public sector organisations can aim to meet the standards of the best when it comes to benefiting from the contribution of volunteers.

The research, Time Well Spent: volunteering in the public sector, which is published today, finds that 94% of those volunteering in the public sector say that they were satisfied with their experience. But only 47% said they were ‘very satisfied’, compared to 58% among charities and community group volunteers, while only 76% said they would continue volunteering in the future compared to 83% among charity volunteers.

'Too much bureaucracy'

Public sector volunteers were almost twice as likely as charity volunteers to say they expected the process of getting involved to be quicker (20% v 11%), suggesting slow procedures in the public sector may be contributing to dissatisfaction. Similarly, they were around 50% more likely than charity volunteers to report that there is ‘too much bureaucracy’ (32% v 21% of volunteers).

Among focus group participants, volunteers at larger organisations in particular expressed the frustrations of bureaucracy and hierarchy and said they sometimes felt ‘at the bottom of the pile’.

Growing pressure

Over one in five, 22%, felt the organisation had unreasonable expectations of their time, compared to 14% of charity volunteers. In focus groups, public sector volunteers reported feeling growing pressure and a sense of expectation to give more time as the services they volunteered for came under financial pressure, which diminished their enjoyment of their roles. A sense of volunteering becoming ‘too much like paid work’ was driven by a combination of a sense of obligation and a feeling of lack of appreciation or being valued.

Focus groups also revealed that those giving their time at organisations where staff and volunteers had positive and supportive relationships were more satisfied, but with volunteers also conscious that morale levels among staff impacted how their volunteering experience felt.

The research is expected to be of great interest to those managing the millions of people who volunteer in a wide range of public sector roles. The report concludes with a range of questions for public sector decision makers to help guide them in creating or improving volunteering programmes.

Karl Wilding, chief executive of NCVO, said:

Volunteers in public services do amazing work, sometimes in incredibly tough roles. We owe it to them to make the experience as positive as possible. And getting public sector volunteering right holds the potential to make a really positive difference to services by harnessing people’s desire to help out in their communities.

The differences we found in the survey are not always dramatic but along with what we heard in focus groups they do hint at areas for improvement in public sector volunteering programmes, particularly in terms of making roles flexible and minimising bureaucracy. I firmly believe that public services are able to do this, even in the context of financial pressure, and I sense a great willingness to do so from the public sector leaders I speak to.

Good volunteering programmes can deliver great returns for communities and public sector bodies, but they do require investment, both financially and in terms of a real commitment from organisations to truly understand volunteering. There are some excellent volunteering programmes in the public sector and the question now is how we help all organisations match these examples.

The research is based on a survey of 10,000 adults in Great Britain, conducted with YouGov, which explored who volunteers, where, why, and how they feel about their volunteering. The first results were published last year. For this publication, detailed further analysis of survey respondents volunteering in the public sector was undertaken, alongside a range of focus groups with volunteers in public services in areas across England.

For further information please contact the NCVO press office.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 13 January 2022

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