3. Volunteer participation
3.1. How has volunteer participation changed?
A decline in some volunteering activities is likely to be an inevitable impact of the pandemic, but it could indicate a wider trend.
Recent data has shown us that, overall, participation in formal volunteering has fallen in the last few years. The findings from the government’s Community Life Survey shows this clearly. Results from the 2021/22 Community Life Survey show the most notable drop: from 23% of the UK population volunteering formally at least once a month in 2019/20, to 16% in 2021/22. See data in chart 1.
The Respond, Recover, Reset project, which involved surveying voluntary sector organisations during the pandemic, also showed overall decreases in formal volunteering. 40% of respondents stated that the range of activities undertaken by their volunteers had reduced. And 40% of organisations reported a decrease in the intensity of volunteering, including volunteers being available less frequently and for a shorter amount of time.
In our Time Well Spent 2023 findings we see that participation in some key volunteering activities has fallen, including:
- raising money or taking part in sponsored events (11% in 2019 to 6% in 2023)
- organising or helping to run an activity (14% to 7%)
- campaigning on behalf of a group, club or organisation (8% to 4%).
As the survey covers a period where covid-19 restrictions were in place (see section 1), it is likely these changes reflect the impact of the pandemic on volunteering activities. This is likely to be particularly the case for sponsored events, which may have been slower to return to ‘normal’.
While the pandemic was a seismic moment, chart 1 highlights a steady decline in formal volunteering since 2013/14. It remains unclear whether formal volunteering rates will rebound in the years ahead or if the most recent drop marks a more significant shift in volunteer behaviour, accelerating an existing trend.
Another factor to consider is that we know the pandemic saw a rise in different types of volunteering, and this has blurred some of the boundaries between informal and formal volunteering (read section 1.2).
Wider research shows the covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on who volunteers.
The Community Life Survey found that in 2020/21 the number of respondents aged between 25 and 34 who formally volunteered at least once a month was lower than respondents in every other age group (10% vs between 14% and 23% for other age groups). Age groups that were most and least likely to volunteer did not change, but participation rates were lower across every age group than in 2019/20.
The Respond, Recover, Reset: The voluntary sector and covid-19 report, which explores research on the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on voluntary organisations, highlighted decreases in volunteering among specific demographic groups during the pandemic. For example, 31% of the organisations surveyed experienced a decrease in the number of people aged 50 years or older who volunteered for them.
18% of the respondents also reported a drop in disabled volunteers, and 9% reported a drop in the number of volunteers who identify as Black, Asian or minority ethnic. Data from the Understanding Society study, which captures life in the 21st century, also highlighted a decline in participation. This was particularly the case for elderly people, who were more likely to quit volunteering.
Volunteering in England During Covid-19: Current issues and learning for recovery, a joint report by NCVO and partners, presents a more mixed picture. It indicates that in some ways the pandemic brought more diverse and new people to volunteering. On the other hand, it amplified and created new barriers to volunteering, which led to some groups (such as disabled people) being less likely to return to volunteering.
3.2. What causes do volunteers contribute to?
Volunteers continue to contribute to a range of causes, most commonly to local community and neighbourhood groups.
Our 2023 Time Well Spent data, as shown in chart 2 (below), highlights the variety of areas or causes volunteers give their time to. If respondents volunteered for more than one organisation, this chart shows the cause they gave most unpaid help to. Survey respondents could select more than one area.
The most common areas or causes are:
- local community and neighbourhood groups (21%)
- health, disability and social welfare (17%)
- hobbies, recreation arts and social clubs (16%).
These were also the top areas or causes in 2019.
The most recent data shows a gap has formed between the percentage of people volunteering for local community and neighbourhood groups, and the percentage of people who volunteer to support hobbies, recreation arts and social clubs. These causes were equally popular in 2019, with 20% of respondents selecting each area.
This change is likely to reflect the rise in local activities and new organisations during lockdowns cited in this working paper by Mobilising Voluntary Action, especially through mutual aid groups. The focus on local-based activity is also shown by over three quarters of volunteers (76%) saying they volunteered in the UK in their own neighbourhood. Some covid-19 restrictions that were in place until spring 2022 (see section 1) may also have impacted volunteering activities related to hobbies, recreation arts and social clubs.
Public sector volunteering has increased, reflecting specific opportunities for the public over the last few years.
In 2023, our Time Well Spent data shows 60% of recent volunteers report giving unpaid help to civil society organisations (for example, charities, voluntary organisations and community groups) as their main organisation. However, there is an increase in the proportion of people who volunteer in the public sector, from 17% in 2019 to 23% in 2023. See chart 3 (below). This is likely to reflect widely marketed volunteering opportunities led by the government, including NHS Responders.
As in 2019, 7% of respondents say they do not know which sector they volunteer in. We know that volunteers often find it difficult to correctly identify the sector of their organisations. This may have been exacerbated by volunteering initiatives launched during the pandemic (such as the covid-19 vaccination programme), which often involved a mix of sectors.
3.3. How has remote volunteering changed?
Remote volunteering is now common, and disabled people continue to be more likely to volunteer in this way.
Our 2019 Time Well Spent data showed that volunteers often did a mix of online and offline activities as part of their volunteering. There were some signs that virtual volunteering was on the rise.
Our 2023 findings show that it has become common for people to volunteer remotely, online or over the phone. Remote volunteering is the third most common ‘place’ for people to volunteer, with just under a third of respondents (31%) saying they volunteer this way (see chart 4, below). It comes behind ‘in a community space’, such as community halls (37%), and ‘in their group’s premises’ (32%).
These findings are not surprising given the need to shift away from face-to-face activities during the pandemic at an unprecedented scale and speed. In the Respond, Recover, Reset research study, 92% of organisations reported moving services online as a result of the pandemic.
Of the people who do at least some of their volunteering online or over the phone, 59% say they do it exclusively this way. This equates to 18% of recent volunteers. Those who say they volunteer exclusively online, as opposed to both online and by phone, is much lower (5% of recent volunteers).
Consistent with our findings in 2019, disabled people continue to be more likely than non-disabled people to do at least some of their volunteering activities remotely. In 2023, 36% of disabled people cite volunteering online or over the phone compared to 29% of non-disabled people.
These findings reinforce other recent research that focuses on inclusive volunteering and disabled people, Volunteering Together: Inclusive volunteering and disabled people. It highlights the way technology can be an enabler as well as a leveller for disabled volunteers, allowing disabled people to volunteer in a way that suits their needs.
Where respondents volunteer for more than one organisation, our findings reflect their participation across all their volunteering activities.
The questions we asked about remote volunteering in our 2023 survey differ from those included in our 2019 survey. Please see the Appendix for more details.