Nurturing voluntary action beyond the pandemic

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Volunteering can be advocated on the grounds that, as recognised decades ago, it has both direct benefits to recipients and indirect (or “latent”) benefits both to the volunteers and communities.”


The onset of Covid provoked a significant and visible outpouring of voluntary action, and understandably there have been prominent proposals for initiatives which will sustain this effort in the long-term. At a time of year when people are making resolutions about doing good, are we likely to see a significant increase in levels of volunteering?

In the long run, trends in volunteering rates (the proportion of us who engage in some form of voluntary action) have been stable for decades. Events which highlighted the profile of voluntary action (the London Olympics) or policies advocating an increase in citizen engagement (David Cameron’s “big society” initiatives) have effected no sustained upward shift. Indeed government-funded social survey results for the first year of the Covid era show no differences in the proportion of adults engaged in some form of voluntary action, compared to previous years. The underlying stability in the proportion of the populace who volunteer shows that despite everything, volunteering is resilient, even if it hasn’t increased as a result of all the policy focus and political attention given to it.

The great majority of British adults actually do some form of voluntary activity already, whether that is “formal volunteering” (activities arranged in an organisational setting) or “informal volunteering” (ad hoc help given directly to people such as was neighbours). Over 3/5 of us say that we carry out either or both of these and around 2/5 do so at least monthly. These figures draw on surveys of what we recall doing at one point in time but most people dip in and out of engagement through their lifecourse as and when circumstances permit. Using a survey which has tracked a cohort of individuals born in 1958 throughout their adult lives, researchers found that fewer than 10% of adults had never recorded anything that could be regarded as volunteering.

That suggests underlying willingness to engage. What, therefore, do we know about what will stimulate or limit the willingness to engage in voluntary action and the scale of engagement?

Resources have a great deal to do with it. Our research identifies a “civic core” of less than one third of the adult population which accounts for over 4/5 of all pro-social behaviours. This core is predominantly middle-aged, prosperous, well-educated, and over-represented (as are volunteers in general) in the most prosperous places.

Economic circumstances likewise have demonstrable effects. The Great Recession of 2008 – 9 resulted in a significant decline of time committed to voluntary action, particularly in the most disadvantaged locations. Over a longer time span, mass redundancies in the early 1980s had long-term scarring effects on participation of those experiencing sudden and forcible job loss. Studying participants in the long-running Mass Observation project, accounts of non-participation stressed the factors, such as long-term illness or unemployment, or caring responsibilities, that had limited their ability to get involved. There are echoes here of a long established sociological insight, which is that “orderly careers” and stable life prospects are what matter most to levels of engagement.

Attitudes also matter. People need to have a message that resonates with them and is credible. Both in the 1990s (when John Major was talking about “active citizenship”) and after 2010, in the “Big society” era, there was strong cynicism about the motives of government calls for volunteering and substantial concern about being asked to deliver public services on the cheap.

Volunteering can be advocated on the grounds that, as recognised decades ago, it has both direct benefits to recipients and indirect (or “latent”) benefits both to the volunteers and communities. There are certainly benefits to health and well-being of volunteers, though perhaps not on the scale needed to limit demands on health services; volunteering is “not a public health intervention”. Volunteering is an activity that shares some of the characteristics of work so it may help people back into the workforce, but what really makes a difference to people’s job prospects is the state of the job market. It is said that positive experiences of volunteering promote engagement in politics, but again there is relatively limited evidence in support of this. Rather than advocating volunteering for its instrumental benefits, therefore, commentators suggest policy ought to emphasise the role volunteering can play in enhancing individual’s sense of self-worth.

Messages designed to encourage volunteering therefore need to be carefully crafted, and there needs to be a realistic acknowledgement of what people can do. The upcoming cost of living crisis and the continued shortages of affordable housing will mean that many people will regard their priorities as staying in work and keeping a roof over their heads. As Stella Creasy, now a Labour MP, put it some years ago, it ought not to be “only those who can dictate their own work hours or pay and conditions who have the freedom to participate”. In other words voluntary action needs nurturing, and working with the grain of people’s everyday lives, which raises much wider policy questions.