Two years ago, when NHS hospitals – among other organisations around the world – were attacked by ransomware hackers, one of the first to have their computers back up and running was the Lister Hospital in Stevenage. It did not pay the hackers a penny. Instead, Hertfordshire police provided a team of young techies from their squad of volunteers, whose employers encouraged their staff to support local charities and public services. Welcome to 21st-century volunteering.
The scale of volunteering in today’s Britain is prodigious. Two in five adults – almost 20 million people – have taken part within the past year. The vast majority, 96%, are happy with the experience. 81% do their volunteering in and for their local communities.
These figures come from a survey of more than 10,000 people conducted by YouGov for NCVO. It provides the most detailed analysis of volunteering for a decade. It depicts the rich diversity of civil society in action in villages, towns and cities throughout Britain. As a sector – indeed, as a nation – we can be proud of what it shows.
That said, there is room for improvement; and not just room but an urgent need. Our survey finds that stubborn demographic gaps remain. Britain’s volunteer community is tilted towards people who are white, middle-class and middle-aged. We need active strategies to close these gaps.
We also need a new settlement between the world of volunteering and the provision of public services. The relationship has grown, is certain to continue growing, and needs to be done in a way that ensures a triple win: for the users of public services, for the providers, and for the volunteers who help them.
That settlement must be based on two pillars: ensuring the best volunteering experience, and making sure that their role is to support, and not replace, the paid professionals, be they teachers, doctors, nurses, care workers or support staff.
One glaring need highlighted by our survey is to expand employer-supported volunteering. The talented techies who restored the Lister Hospital’s computer system provide a stunning example of what can be achieved. Many employers allow staff paid time off to take part in volunteering; but their employees are often unaware of this – or are aware but say that their organisation does not actively encourage it.
We therefore face a double challenge: to encourage many more employers to offer time off – and for a much higher proportion of workers to take up the offer. We should aim for workers who do not engage in employer-supported volunteering to be rare exceptions. If we work effectively for this goal, at all levels, in all industries and in the public, private and third sectors, then we shall not only contribute to a healthier, happier society; we should finally be able to close the demographic gaps that still persist.
All this needs to be done at a time when new technology poses challenges to the world of volunteering as great as to any other section of our economy and society. Only 6% of volunteering is done exclusively online; but as much as 57% is done through a mix of online and offline activities. The opportunities are plainly huge: we can expect many more services such as the RNIB’s telephone-based support by tech volunteers for blind and partially sighted people.
As the figures for digital volunteering grow, our sector needs to think hard about how it can be done best.
Do we need more flexible arrangements, especially for the younger, most tech-savvy volunteers? What can we learn from disabled volunteers, who are more than twice as likely as non-disabled people to provide their service online?
How can small charities, with few if any staff, be helped to embrace digital volunteering? How do we best combine online help with the face-to-face service that so many citizens value?
On these, as on so many issues, our survey raises more questions than it answers. Good research invariably does that. I am proud of the outstanding NCVO team that has produced this report.
They deserve our thanks; and the best way to thank them will be for us all – in NCVO, our sector, and British society more generally – to answer those questions and rise to the challenges the survey has so clearly identified.
Firstly, we would like to thank the NCVO Board of Trustees for agreeing to fund this research, and particularly its Chair, Peter Kellner. Our thanks also go to Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering, who did everything to make this project happen.
Special thanks go to all those working in a range of volunteer-involving organisations who were happy to be interviewed at the scoping stage of the project and those who fed into our various workshops on emerging findings.
This stakeholder engagement would not have been possible without the support of our colleagues in the Volunteering Development Team: Shaun Delaney, Jarina Choudhury and Liz Woodman. We would like to also thank them for their expertise and contribution, along with other colleagues across NCVO, particularly Keeva Rooney and Rebecca Young
In addition, we would like to thank a number of external contributors for their input to the research process - Kim Donahue, Kirstie Heighway (YouGov), Zsolt Kiss, Laurence Janta-Lipinski, Katie Spreadbury, and especially Jo Stuart. We are also grateful for the guidance and insights of the NCVO Research Advisory Group.
Our final thanks go to the team of designers at Steers McGillan Eves.