The Giving Time in Hard Times project was conducted by a team of people from four UK universities who wanted to know whether sharing information about how others have volunteered could help to increase the level of volunteering. Whereas previous studies have looked at giving money, this was about giving time and whether volunteers can be nudged into doing more.
We used randomised control trials in real-life field settings involving university student volunteers, parish councils, National Trust volunteers and housing association residents. We also conducted qualitative research and surveys to learn more about the obstacles to volunteering among the groups we studied.
We trialled a variety of forms of social information, including personalised feedback about individuals' volunteering hours compared with others; e-mail endorsements about the importance and value of volunteering from celebrities, politicians and students; and information-based nudges that sought to highlight the importance of getting more candidates to stand as parish councillors.
None of the approaches led to significant increases in volunteering, either for student volunteers or other groups such as National Trust volunteers or housing association residents. Do these negative findings mean the project was a waste of time?
No. It was heartening and revealing that the organisations partnering with us on the research were willing to engage enthusiastically in large-scale field experiments of this nature. There was a strong appetite for information about what works in terms of solving recruitment challenges in organisations reliant on volunteers, and a determination to overcome challenges, whether to do with data collection, timing or data protection, and to find answers to these questions. Using randomised controlled trials in field settings for the project has taught us a lot about the practicalities, enablers and limitations of such methods. And finding out that something did not work means more research can discover something that does.
Peter John is professor of political science and public policy at the School of Public Policy, University College London.