John Mohan: Volunteering is not as beneficial as we tend to think it is

Results from a 10-year review analysing socioeconomic datasets which involved 10,000 people are sobering, writes our columnist

John Mohan
John Mohan

Assertions that volunteering benefits health, well-being, employability and so forth are almost articles of faith, but hard evidence is lacking. Cross-sectional studies usually find positive associations, but we also need longitudinal studies of changes over time in the same individuals. Using controls so that the only difference between group A and group B is that one group was volunteering at one time period and one was not, are there differences in outcomes at the next time point in the study?

A major review has been conducted by Rene Bekkers, extraordinary professor of philanthropic studies at the Free University of Amsterdam, as part of a multi-country European study of the impact of the third sector. The review analysed several authoritative socioeconomic datasets that have tracked individuals over a number of years; asked about their socioeconomic characteristics, civic engagement, and various other outcomes; and attempted to establish the effects of volunteering. Over 150,000 individuals were observed over a 10-year period.

The results are sobering. The positive effects of volunteering were demonstrated to be marginal. Volunteering produced a detectable increase in well-being, but only by about 0.7 per cent in the measure used; it increased levels of subjectively-reported health by around two per cent; it didn't have consistent effects on employability; and there were positive, but small, effects on the quality of individuals' social relationships.

These studies included controls for selection biases - volunteers are more likely, for example, to be healthier and have more social connections to begin with. Most of the variation between volunteers and non-volunteers is because of these biases. Failure to make such allowances leads to gross overestimation of the benefits of volunteering. The study concludes that volunteering does enhance welfare, but impacts are limited: "We should not expect miracles from participation in third-sector activities," is its conclusion.

Welfare impacts of participation is deliverable 3.3. of 'Impact of the third sector as social innovation', available from

John Mohan is director of the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham

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