News Analysis: Damn lies and volunteer statistics

When three surveys disagree on uptake levels, you have to look at the definitions, writes Indira Das-Gupta.

Volunteers on a BTCV project
Volunteers on a BTCV project

Sector think tank nfpSynergy ruffled a few feathers earlier this month when it published its latest survey, which showed that volunteering was not on the rise, despite high-profile government initiatives to boost it.

The survey of a representative sample of 1,000 people over 16 years of age, interviewed three times a year since 2001, showed that the proportion of them that volunteers has remained unchanged at 19 per cent over the past year. The figure was down from 20 per cent since 2004 (Third Sector, 9 January).

The findings made bleak reading, not just for the Government, which has poured millions into various initiatives to promote volunteering in recent years, but also for the myriad volunteering organisations that have taken up this challenge and received government funding to do so.

It depends on your definition

Volunteering England believes nfpSynergy's survey is misleading. Figures from the Helping Out survey, published last September by the Institute for Volunteering Research, based at Volunteering England, showed that 59 per cent of respondents from a group of 2,705 said they had volunteered in the past 12 months. When the timeframe was extended to five years, this rose to 68 per cent.

The figures for the Government's latest Citizenship Survey also paint a more positive picture than nfpSynergy. They show the proportion of people who had volunteered with formal organisations at least once in the previous 12 months had increased from 39 per cent in 2001 to 44 per cent in 2005. This finding is based on a regionally representative sample of 10,000 adults and a minority ethnic boost sample of 5,000 people from England and Wales.

How is it possible for there to be such variation? It is partly down to the timeframe that each survey looks at, but also to differences in how the questions are phrased.

"The questions we put to our sample group were unprompted," says Joe Saxton, co-founder of nfpSynergy. "We simply asked: 'Have you volunteered in the past three months?' Some people who volunteer do not see it as such, and it's utterly legitimate to prompt people, but we need to agree on a suitable prompt."

Mike Locke, assistant director at the IVR, agrees: "There's a huge difference in the response, depending on whether you call it volunteering or not. If you do, about 20 per cent will say yes, but if you describe it as giving unpaid help, as we did in our Helping Out report last September, the figure will be significantly higher.

"The word volunteering has a much narrower meaning for most people, and it has cultural connotations that mean few use it. So it matters a lot how you raise it and how much you prompt."

Saxton, on the other hand, believes the Citizenship Survey goes too far with its prompting. "The Government uses some rather incredible mechanisms," he says. "One of its examples is 'giving someone directions', which it describes as informal volunteering. I would question the need for the distinction between formal and informal because most would not even regard it as volunteering at all."

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman defends the decision to distinguish. "Not all individuals volunteer through clubs or organisations, but their contribution is just as valid," she says. "We recognise that other organisations do not make the distinction and use the formal volunteering figures only when formulating policy. However, we think it's important to collate figures for both areas because there needs to be a wider context."

Locke also defends the Government's decision to distinguish between informal and formal volunteering. "Certain ethnic groups are less likely to engage in the latter, so it's a matter of being equitable," he says. "It depends on what you are trying to achieve. If you are trying to inform public policy, you need to build up a comprehensive picture."

Volunteering charity CSV also agrees with the wider definition. "We welcome the Government's Citizenship Survey because it provides important statistical evidence of how people get involved in volunteer action, which helps recruiters," says Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, its executive director.

CSV's own calculations add yet another dimension to the debate: it includes activities for which participants receive living expenses. Some other organisations exclude these because they regard them as payment.

The discussion highlights the lack of consensus about what volunteering is. But those who are waiting for an agreed definition of volunteering are advised not to hold their breath, according to Locke. "I don't think it's possible to get a watertight definition, because it includes so many different kinds of activity," he says.

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