Volunteering information

28 Jul 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 28 Jul 2017

Volunteering means a lot of different things. To get the best out of it, we need information that is clearer on the distinctions, on how different people donate their time in different ways – and on what they achieve.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport released its latest annual Community Life Survey this week.

When Stormont is functioning properly our decisions are still influenced by London; if the Assembly reform talks fail then Westminster will have a greater say on the direction we take.

The health of the voluntary and community sector in England will therefore effect the third sector in Northern Ireland. The health of both is underpinned by the state of volunteering more generally.

How committed are people to volunteering, in whatever capacity? As a population, how willing are we to surrender our time for the benefit of others? And, just as important, what impact does our volunteering have?

To start at the end: a trawl through several reports looking at related but slightly different things highlights the need for more and better data and also some idea of what a baseline should look like for volunteering. Indeed, volunteering means many different things and, to pursue better policy, we need to draw cleaner lines between these.

If we ask just a few more questions the information we have could become a lot more useful.

The Community Life Survey looks at volunteering, giving and social engagement. Its statistical bulletin has some very interesting facts about trends in giving, civic engagement, individuals’ feelings of agency within their communities, feelings of neighbourhood and community, and wellbeing.

However, this article will focus particularly on volunteering. For 2016/17 it found that 39% of adults said they had done some volunteering at least once a month during the previous year (formal or informal, with 22% of adults saying they had taken part in formal volunteering at least once a month) while 63% had done so at least once in the previous year.

These figures do not sound bad – or good, necessarily – but they do not mean much in isolation.


Per the report: “Levels of volunteering have decreased between 2013-14 and 2016-17, with the proportion of adults who had engaged in any volunteering in the last 12 months falling from 70% to 63% and the proportion who had engaged once a month falling from 44% to 39% in this period. However, the proportion of adults who had engaged in formal volunteering, both annually and monthly, levelled off in 2016-17.”

“Volunteering has fallen in most age groups since 2013-14 but different measures showed different patterns in some cases. For example, among 16-25 year olds, the proportion engaged in formal volunteering at least once a month fell from 29% in 2013-14 to 20% in 2016-17 while the proportion engaged in regular informal volunteering remained flat at 29% over this period.

“The fall in any volunteering at least once a year was most noticeable in the 25 to 34 and 50 to 64 age groups, with both groups seeing a drop of 10 percentage points to 57% and 62% respectively between 2013-14 and 2016-17.

“Those who were economically inactive were more likely to have engaged in formal volunteering at least once a month at 29%, compared to those in employment (22%) in 2016-17. The most common reason respondents selected for volunteering in 2016-17 was “to improve things/help people” with 49% of volunteers giving this reason. This was followed by “the cause was really important to me” and “I had spare time to do it” with 32% and 28% of respondents giving these as a reason respectively.”

State of NI

It is important to compare what is happening in England with the analogous patterns in Northern Ireland. NICVA’s State of the Sector research provides a thorough look at volunteering locally.

This is in many ways more comprehensive than the DCMS survey, providing a much more textured look at local volunteering, and is well worth a read (or re-read). Perhaps the most relevant point of comparison is section three of the NICVA research, which examines volunteering across all sectors.

However, it uses information dating back to 2015 and, moreover, is more focused on the third sector itself and, thus, more likely to capture only formal volunteering (and therein mostly with social enterprises), as opposed to both formal and informal.

A more direct comparison with DCMS can be found in the Department for Communities latest report on Volunteering in Northern Ireland, carried out by NISRA and published in June. It found:

  • Just over a quarter (27%) of adults in Northern Ireland indicated that they had carried out voluntary work within the past year. This is a decrease on the proportion of those who volunteered in 2015 (32%), however the rate is similar to those reported over the period 2012 to 2014.
  • Of those who had volunteered in the previous year, 37% had helped in a church or religious organisation, 36% had carried out a fundraising activity and 26% of respondents indicated that they had worked with young people.
  • Nearly half (46%) of those who had volunteered had volunteered with a church or faith based organisation, whereas just over a fifth (21%) had volunteered with a sports organisation.
  • Similar proportions of males (26%) and females (28%) said that they had volunteered in the past year. These are similar to the proportions reported throughout the period 2012 to 2015. In addition, analysis by age shows no difference in the proportions of adults who volunteer by age group (Aged 16-64: 29%; Aged 65 and over: 23%).

When it comes to giving up our time on an informal basis, people in England seem far more generous than those in Northern Ireland, at least according to these figures.


In many ways, these statistics cloud a picture that should be clear.

Firstly, according to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) said this year’s DCMS survey used a new methodology so interpretations are not straightforward.

When compared with Northern Ireland, the participation figures for volunteering in England seem very high. However, a look at this Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) report from May 2016 reveals a huge gap between their figures and those from DCMS.

The CAF 2016 report stated that one in eight people in the UK had volunteered in the last year; their latest paper, from April this year (in a report which again changed methodology from the previous year), found that “one in six (17%) said they had volunteered for a charity over the previous year, with one in ten (9%) saying they had done so in the last four weeks. Both of these levels are higher than in 2015 (13% and 6% respectively)”.

Nevertheless, the difference in the figures between the CAF reports and the DCMS reports is huge. But, then, they are not asking the same thing – CAF focuses on work and volunteering with charities and other third sector organisations specifically (like NICVA generally does), whereas DCMS is looking at volunteering in its most general sense.

All different kinds of volunteering are important; the issue is that these areas are intrinsically related and to get the best out of all aspects of volunteering we need to have a better idea how they all fit together.

A couple more questions

NICVA’s State of the Sector makes a good fist of this. More needs to be done, although the difficulties with this are obvious.

However, while it is absurd to expect everyone who spends a couple of hours manning a stall at a church jumble sale to fill in a form, we can ask for tweaks to survey questions that ultimately comprise the data on which we analyse trends.

There is already good work being done by many organisations like Volunteer Now on how to measure impact (and therefore help maximise it).

Much of this information is already being tapped but if we go deeper than distinctions as simple as formal/informal - or even between charities, church organisations, sports clubs and so on – then we will be able to say more intelligent things about the ongoing and potential impact of volunteering.

If this is intended to help policy, then frame the questions in a way that can do that. NISRA already collects data on who volunteering is for and what it comprised (in a broad sense). So, if someone has done work through their church, and that work was providing transport, if we also knew that this transport was helping people with learning disabilities get from their home to access a service then we can really joins the dots together.

Asking questions like that would allow us to better know how charities/faith groups/community organisations provide transport/fundraising/mentoring within the sphere of mental health/early years education/independence of older people and therefore build a full cross-section of volunteering.

Finding out who did what for who is crucial. If that is already being done by central statisticians it does not come across in their publications.

And, finally

Statutory bodies are in the best position to sort this out. The benefits could be enormous.

Despite the failure of David Cameron’s Big Society the UK in general, and Northern Ireland in particular, are increasingly reliant on volunteering on all levels (from formal work with big charities right down to spending a few hours helping a local church or sports club) and to make the best policy we need to know what can and cannot be achieved from all different aspects of volunteering and how they fit together.

Currently we have swathes of information about volunteering by demographics – age, gender, and so on – but the details about what we mean when we say we have volunteered our time are not well enough known.

If that improves the third sector – as a mainstay of the general pursuit of volunteering – can not only continue to grow, it will do so with a better roadmap of what is required.

In fact, the whole idea of volunteering could be improved because we will all have a better idea how to spend our time.

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