'Time Well Spent' – Is this the case for volunteering?

28 January 2019

Matthew Linning, head of research at Volunteer Scotland, shares his thoughts from today’s NCVO conference on volunteering experience across Great Britain.

Ncvo Time Well Spent Doc I have just spent the day in London at the launch of NCVO’s new report ‘Time Well Spent’. Now, in general, I am not a great fan of conference type events and it is a bit of trek to get there from Edinburgh, but my boss, George, was adamant – “This is important Matthew – just go!”

Well actually, I was already a ‘signed up’ supporter of this research as this is the first GB-wide study of this scale and depth in over a decade. So, what did I learn? Drawing upon Donald Rumsfeld’s approach the findings can be grouped into the things we know we know, and the things we know we don’t’ know.

Known knowns

Yes, it was to be expected that quite of lot of the descriptive data was known to us. OK, the percentage figures differ somewhat from the Scottish Household Survey data in Scotland, but the key characteristics hold:

  • Static/declining participation – significantly less than half of the GB adult population has volunteered formally in the last 12 months - 38% (28%)

  • The non-engaged – nearly a third have never volunteered – 31% (49%)

  • Socio-economic gradient – ABC1 is 44% and C2DE only 30% (37% in SIMD Q5 vs. 19% in Q1)

  • Place is important – 80% of volunteers give time locally within their own neighbourhoods

  • Age matters – the highest volunteering rate is in the 65+ age group at 45%; (in Scotland it is the second highest participation age cohort at 30%)

(Figures in brackets sourced from Volunteering Trends in Scotland: 2007 - 2017)

So this is all quite reassuring – it is good to have robust evidence which corroborates what you already know, but this doesn’t really help us to move our understanding forward. However, the ‘known knowns’ is only the tip of the iceberg in the ‘Time Well Spent’ study. The report’s major contribution is in telling us what we don’t know.

Known unknowns 

The NCVO study provides some fascinating insights into aspects of volunteering that we have either never had access to, or the data is so old that it is now meaningless. For example, the report provides new measures on issues we are aware of, but for which we have had no quantitative data:

  • Only 7% of those surveyed have been both consistently and heavily involved in volunteering over their lifetime. This ‘civic core’ tend to be the people organisations depend on for the ‘heavy lifting’ (in Scotland 19% of volunteers account for 65% of volunteering hours).

  • In contrast, 23% of volunteers exclusively volunteer as part of a one-off activity or dip in and out of activities.

  • Only 6% of volunteers carry out their volunteering exclusively online. Given that volunteering is a people business and that health and wellbeing benefits tend to be derived from its social connectedness, I do not see this as a concern. However, online engagement can provide another route into volunteering for those subject to barriers. For example, the 6% figure increases to 10% for those who have a disability.

However, what was even more insightful for me was the themed evidence in three key areas: health and wellbeing, barriers to volunteering and routes to engaging volunteers. 

Health & wellbeing

The study provides very strong underpinning evidence on how volunteering helps people engage with society and the health and wellbeing benefits which can flow from this:

  • 89% of volunteers meet new people through their volunteering

  • Two-thirds of volunteers say they are always or often with others when they volunteer

  • And crucially, 68% of volunteers agree that their volunteering helps them feel less isolated. Furthermore, this figure increases to 77% for the 18 – 24 year olds and 76% for the 25 – 34 year olds.

Also, 90% of volunteers feel they make a difference through their volunteering, which we know is a key enabler of health and wellbeing for volunteers.


The NCVO evidence also shows that engaging those who have never volunteered is not without its challenges:

  • 19% have never thought about volunteering

  • And more worryingly, 48% say “nothing in particular would encourage me to get involved”.

It is important to recognise that volunteering is not for everyone, and we must move away from the mindset that we should all be volunteering all the time. However, on a more optimistic note the research goes on to show that the propensity to engage with volunteering is much greater for lapsed volunteers. Around 1 in 5 of those who volunteered 1 – 3 years ago investigated volunteering opportunities in the last year. 


Finally, the report provides clear evidence on how best to engage people in volunteering. For example, among those interested in future ways of getting involved, the opportunities which appealed the most were those which:

  • Look fun and enjoyable to be part of (50% of respondents)

  • Make use of existing skills or experience (52%)

  • Combine volunteering with existing hobbies or interests (44%)

Summing Up

The above observations represent only a cursory examination of the Summary Report (pdf, 0.7Mb), but for me the evidence already supports the title of this research - ‘time well spent’. However, this brief foray into the statistics has whetted my appetite to dive deeply into the Main Report (pdf,2Mb). Indeed, you never know, it may even reach the holy grail – the identification of some of the ‘unknown unknowns’ in volunteering!

My thanks to the NCVO team and partners who have helped deliver this most thoughtful and insightful piece of research. And as I trundle back up to Edinburgh on the train this evening I must confess that although it has been a long day, it has definitely been ‘time well spent’.

Categories: For Organisations