In tough economic times, where demand for many forms of social service are increasing and government funding for such services is being cut, the role of volunteers has gained increasing political prominence as a means of tackling social problems, particularly at a local level.
But it is not only in terms of direct service provision that volunteering has been posited as a solution the UK’s current socio-economic problems. Volunteering has also been promoted as a route to greater employability, and ultimately to employment: a means of addressing supply-side problems in the labour market by helping people gain skills, confidence, experience and references. This perspective casts the benefits of volunteering as accruing primarily to individual volunteers and their households, as well as to the wider economy, as people become net contributors fiscally.
Seeing volunteering as a route to employment, however, presupposes that the relationships between volunteering, employability and employment are positive and straightforward. Findings recently published in Voluntary Sector Review suggest that this is not always the case. Analysis of the British Household Panel Survey by Angela Ellis Paine, Steve McKay and Domenico Moro showed that whilst for some people volunteering may have a positive effect on the labour market position of some individuals in some circumstances; for others it may have a negative effect, or no effect.
An award-winning conference paper by TSRC researcher Daiga Kamerade also explored the relationship between formal volunteering and re-employment in the UK and found that for the majority of unemployed people, volunteering does not significantly raise the chances of getting a job. One explanation for this was that the skills that volunteering opportunities provided were either not transferable or were not those that were in demand by employers. Competition within the job market at a time of high unemployment was another. However, the paper suggests that volunteering does have other benefits for unemployed people, potentially increasing employability skills and attitudes and providing a meaningful and productive alternative to paid work.
Further work by TSRC researchers draws out the policy implications of these and similar studies and recommends steps that should be taken to improve the effectiveness of volunteering programmes principally aimed at enhancing employability. They argue that such programmes need to be carefully targeted and designed, so that they provide skills and experience that are in demand in the labour market. In order to maximise the chances of volunteering experiences leading to paid work, three specific recommendations are made:
- Match volunteering opportunities as closely as possible with volunteers’ work ambitions
- Encourage volunteers to balance frequency of volunteering with time spent on other activities that enhance employability
- Provide tailored support including opportunities for reflection on skills gained and help in translating volunteering experiences into evidence for CVs, job applications and interviews.
However, as Kamerade and Ellis Paine note, ‘Even if volunteering equips people with the skills and experience necessary to compete in the labour market, it does not create jobs, solve unemployed parents’ childcare problems or change employers’ prejudices.’ As such, messages to potential volunteers on such programmes needs to set realistic expectations and be tailored to individual circumstances.
It is important to acknowledge that the benefits of volunteering may not necessarily be of the economic variety. Opportunities to meet others, gain confidence and learn new skills can be said to have an intrinsic value, particularly to those for who have had limited access to such opportunities in other contexts. As such, increased employability can also be framed as a desirable side effect of volunteering initiatives, allowing for a greater focus on other benefits that it brings to individuals, communities and society more widely. Indeed ongoing TSRC work is looking at relationships between volunteering and other outcomes such as well-being: Faiza Tabassum is exploring links between volunteering and individual perceptions of health status, while Corine Driessens is investigating the relationship between voluntary action and adolescent development using longitudinal studies of young people.
A further way in which volunteering is promoted is as a means of building community at a local level. Such activity may be informal - Below the Radar - or more organized and formal in nature. For instance, community organising has been promoted in recent years as a means of bringing people together and activating them so that local resources can be used to address shared community priorities. The relationship between social capital (a concept which encompasses activities, attitudes and characteristics within local communities that are relevant to building community) and formal volunteering is explored in some of TSRC’s latest research.
Based on analysis of data about social capital from the 2005 and 2007 Home Office Citizenship Surveys, the paper by Andrew McCulloch, John Mohan and Peter Smith reports that the lowest levels of social capital were found in the most deprived areas and the highest in the most affluent ones. Formal volunteering (as part of an organised group) was found to increase as social capital increased, but this was not independent of deprivation. A key conclusion from this research is that ‘whether or not voluntary action generates an increase in social capital, it will not, on its own, do much to reverse patterns of disadvantage’, rather - the authors suggest - ‘Policies to tackle area deprivation need to concentrate on linking deprived areas up to economic opportunities in more affluent surrounding areas rather than on local strategies based on self-help.’
There are also concerns about the impacts of changes in volunteering activity over time, and TSRC research published in the leading journal Sociology suggests there have been cohort reductions in engagement, as captured in the BHPS measure of participation in associations, which indicate that more recent birth cohorts are less engaged than their counterparts were when measured at the same ages. This raises the question of whether it will be possible to rely on the supply of volunteers as the baby boom generation into retirement.
TSRC quantitative work has had a strong focus on understanding the social and geographical distribution of volunteers: in addition to the work above, researchers have developed the concept of the ‘civic core’, which identifies the characteristics of those most engaged in voluntary activity. Estimates of volunteer numbers have been derived using organisational data from the National Survey of Third Sector Organisations, and John Mohan and Matthew Bennett are continuing to investigate relationships between volunteering and area deprivation at a small area scale.
The volunteering studies reported on above encompass a range of different methods and perspectives, but from them emerges a clear point of converge around the need to see and understand volunteering in a more holistic way: firstly in terms of recognising the benefits of volunteering beyond the rather functional categories of service provision and employability, and secondly by recognising the relationship between volunteering and local and national socio-economic conditions. Such an approach may help strike a more appropriate balance that recognises the importance of voluntary action, whilst acknowledging the constraints upon it and in particular the need for demand- as well as supply-side intervention where volunteering is framed as a route into employment.