8. Final reflections
8.1. We have a lot to celebrate
Since 2019, when we published our first Time Well Spent report, we have experienced challenging times, both for volunteering and society as a whole. The high satisfaction rate (92%) of people who have volunteered through groups, clubs and organisations across Great Britain is a testament to the hard work of all everyone who supports them – many are volunteers themselves.
Despite radical changes to volunteering, the vast majority of volunteers continue to feel supported, are able to raise issues if they want to, and feel that that organisations are flexible with their time. Encouragingly, those who volunteer online or by phone are as satisfied as those who volunteer face-to-face, and feel as much of a sense of belonging.
8.2. Some things haven’t changed
Research data over the years shows us that what motivates volunteers has not changed. Our latest findings highlight that even when significant external events have a huge impact on volunteering, people’s core motivators stay the same. People volunteer to make a difference, and because they are connected to the cause, group or organisation they choose to volunteer for. However, practical factors continue to play an important role: volunteers give their time freely and it has to work for them.
8.3. We have more work to do
We must also address the challenging findings this report raises. Overall, rates of volunteering through groups, clubs or organisations have shown signs of decline in recent years. Volunteer satisfaction, while high overall, is also lower than in 2019 – as is the likelihood of someone continuing to volunteer in the next 12 months. This is particularly noticeable for young people who are less positive than their older peers, and less positive than they were in 2019. If we see young people as the future of volunteering, then this is a cause for real concern.
Similarly, disabled volunteers are less likely to be satisfied than non-disabled volunteers. A minority of disabled volunteers even feel that their volunteering negatively affects their health and wellbeing.
Disappointingly, despite efforts in equity, diversity and inclusion, a lower proportion of volunteers see diversity within their volunteer groups. And an initial look at the experience of ethnic minority communities suggests their experience, as in 2019, remains less positive than their white peers’.
While we can see that many of our research findings are similar between 2019 and 2023, we must acknowledge the context has changed – and continues to change. The increasing concern about being out of pocket as a barrier to volunteering is striking, even if it is not surprising against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis. More needs to be done to ease prospective volunteers’ concerns. These practical barriers are even more important to address, if we are to improve and not hamper efforts to increase diversity and inclusion.
Similarly, we know the covid-19 pandemic resulted in new expectations around flexibility. The findings in this report indicate that volunteer-involving organisations should actively address concerns about flexibility, as these may be primarily an issue of perception rather than reality (most volunteers agree their group is flexible around the time they give). We have seen that virtual and remote volunteering is common and that these volunteers have a positive experience overall. This may help address misconceptions from those who do not volunteer currently.
Our findings highlight that more volunteers thought unreasonable expectations have been placed on them and that their volunteering has felt too much like paid work. We know that many feel fatigued – even burnt out – after a challenging few years. We should acknowledge and appreciate this.
Actively asking and showing people how they can volunteer may seem obvious, but it can provide a key route in for those not already involved. Focusing on the proactive ways volunteers can be encouraged is arguably more important now than ever. Importantly, as we bring people into volunteering, we need to focus on offering and providing them with a quality experience, ensuring volunteering is still ‘time well spent’.
8.4. Things are likely to continue evolving
The findings from this survey focus primarily on respondents’ reflections on the period between November/December 2021 and November/December 2022. We can certainly see various impacts of the pandemic on volunteering during this time. The last few years have shown us how quickly things can evolve, and we should continue to expect changes ahead as we settle into the post-covid ‘new normal’.
What this future looks like is not clear, especially with so much wider uncertainty. One example of this is remote volunteering: our research shows that volunteering online or by phone is now commonplace – but what will this look like in a year or two? Will the desire for more face-to-face time and ‘Zoom fatigue’ cause us to re-think? What will the hybrid world look like and what will it mean for volunteers’ experiences?
As we continue to adapt and evolve, it is likely volunteers’ expectations will also change. Organisations will need to develop their volunteering offers and continue to be agile to ensure they meet changing expectations. We must acknowledge that remote volunteering is not an option for everyone – some activities will always require face-to-face interaction.
8.5. There’s more to consider
In this report, we have analysed new data, primarily in comparison to 2019, about the collective volunteer experience. But there is much more to explore. In particular, we want to understand the experience of volunteers from ethnic minority communities, especially given the number of areas for improvement we have highlighted in this report. We will share these findings in a separate report.
This report has focused on formal volunteering, to reflect our similar focus in 2019. However, we have intentionally included more questions about informal volunteering in our 2023 survey, to reflect the increasingly blurred boundaries between formal and informal volunteering. We will follow up with further analysis on this too.
For now, we hope that the findings prompt fresh thinking– and, importantly, action – to help us prepare for the future of volunteering. Already, the Vision for Volunteering – a 10-year collaborative project designed to create a better future for volunteering – is taking exciting steps to propel the voluntary sector and volunteers in a new direction. The Vision has ambitions in the important areas of awareness and appreciation, power, equity and inclusion, collaboration and experimentation – themes that reflect the findings shared in this report.
Reflections and questions for volunteer-involving and voluntary infrastructure organisations:
- How can we remain versatile and continue to adapt to inevitable changes ahead, using lessons learned from the last few years?
- How can we celebrate and keep showing appreciation for the difference our volunteers make?
- How do we renew efforts to improve equity, diversity and inclusion?
- How can we address practical barriers to volunteering and, in particular, review and communicate our expenses policies?
- How can we create more opportunities to ask people to get involved, and showcase our flexible volunteering opportunities?
Reflections and questions for policy makers:
- Volunteering is essential to our society, and we see here real challenges and opportunities. What role do national and local governments play in supporting and enabling volunteering? How can governments work in partnership with the voluntary, public and private sectors to improve engagement and reduce barriers? We explore some of these questions in a report published in 2021: Volunteering in England During Covid-19: The policy response and its impact.
- What short- and long-term policy initiatives would best support the sector to act on our findings? How can legislation, regulation and funding be targeted over the coming years to reduce and remove barriers to volunteering? This is particularly important for younger people, disabled people, and people who experience racism and discrimination.
- Volunteer expenses pose a significant barrier for many volunteers, particularly young people. Are there opportunities to explore how changes to mechanisms like the Approved Mileage Allowance Payment rate could encourage more people to volunteer?