Taking Volunteering Stats Seriously

25 November 2014

Eliane Blog

This old quote by Mark Twain sprung to mind when I looked at the first of our series of reports on Understanding Volunteer Participation, and I wondered: is this perception why we haven’t taken the volunteering stats that seriously?  And, when I say seriously, I mean taken seriously by all us “movers and shakers” across all sectors - voluntary , public and private - who support and consciously or unconsciously rely on volunteers. 

We’re nearly a year in from our re-brand last December, and I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Liz Burns, our first Chief Executive: we were chatting about the latest Scottish Household Survey stats and Liz asked “where have all the people gone”?  - I didn’t have an easy answer...like many things, it’s complicated!  One thought that comes to the forefront of my mind and others when looking at our latest report is whether we’re measuring the right thing?

This raises the age old question for many volunteering practitioners like:

  • What is volunteering?
  • Are we fully recognising the role and value of all people’s volunteer effort?

We could continue to go in circles in the ever demanding search for ‘facts’ but what’s important is that we make use of the ‘best available’ evidence we have now.  After all many other areas manage to do this every day – for example,  climate change, sustainable development and equalities - and I’m not sure why it seems a bit of a struggle for some when it comes to social evidence on volunteering.

The facts are that we’ve got good trend data from the Scottish Household Survey - the only nationally representative household survey of volunteering in Scotland – which is the best available evidence we have, and, supplemented with other evidence, can be used to give us a good insight into those who do and don’t volunteer in Scotland.

For a long time we’ve known that volunteering has been pretty stable across Scotland, and now it looks like there is decline. This trend is not unique to Scotland – England’s volunteering rates (although around 10% higher) follow a similar pattern – see Nick Ockendon’s recent post.  


So, what does the best available information tell us?

  • The majority of people in Scotland are not volunteering - 72%
  • more positively, 28% of people do volunteer and those providing regular help is stable
  • but a very small number of people are doing most of the hours; in fact 6% of do 66% of all volunteers hours

We know that the majority of volunteers (81%) help out voluntary sector organisations (see our Volunteering in Scotland survey).  But why does this matter ? Well…let's look at investment...£££...

What I find intriguing is that we’ve had an enormously successful injection investment in to the voluntary sector by successive Governments over the last 10 years  – which all seems wonderful news - BUT despite this, it appears to have had no beneficial impact on growing volunteering overall and today we might even be in decline!


Third Sector investment

What’s going on?   

Are volunteers no longer at the heart of our sector’s development and growth? Or worse - is the sector assuming that volunteering just happens with little investment into growing and sustaining support for volunteers?  

In recent times, I’ve been part of the voluntary sectors influence on policy makers and practitioners, and recently when drawing people’s attention to this best available evidence they are shocked. Because the assumption and perception is that volunteers are at the heart of our sector.  And yes we believe this to be true, but only in certain areas of the sector as highlighted in our Volunteering in Scotland survey.

There are some that say we are losing what the voluntary sector was all about i.e. voluntary and instead calling this the ‘Third Sector’.   Instead we might be in danger of creating a “voluntary sector” which displaces volunteers or one which isn’t creating a fully supportive environment for volunteering to grow because of demands from elsewhere.  There is much debate with “movers and shakers” about ensuring that volunteers do not displace paid staff - a very valid topic, albeit it is my view this is based on fear rather than reality - but there seems little discussion about the opposite issue. Is there an emerging trend here that warrants some discussion – especially given the massive investment in the “voluntary” sector in recent years and the fact that this does not seem to have supported a growth in volunteering?

I feel that volunteers should be at the heart of our sector, and recognised and supported in all sectors and parts of our society in a way where there is little or no danger of having a poor experience. We have to ask ourselves – since 2010, what’s changed that’s not allowing volunteering to grow?  For example:  


  • The voluntary sector being key service delivery agents  
  • The creation of a social/competitive market place for service providers
  • Legislation which inhibits and hinders or places fear in voluntary organisations to engage with volunteers
  • Changes to procurement and growth of a results based culture
  • Many Volunteer Centres are now Third Sector Interfaces – what impact has this had on volunteer development?


OR do we just need a different approach to supporting people to engage in volunteering in a ‘fast’ paced world? Lots of food for thought and another blog I suspect!  

One thing I know many will agree with is that volunteering nearly always brings about a wonderful sense of wellbeing and a massive wealth to our society.  The best available evidence highlights this very ‘fact’! 


What do you think? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below....


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