Over the past few weeks, a conflicting picture of the strength of volunteering in the UK has emerged. But one thing remains clear - there is a substantial untapped market for volunteers that charities are failing to exploit.
At the end of May, a major study from the Home Office found that nearly four out of 10 people were involved in volunteering. But this was followed by a survey by research company NOP, carried out for the SSAFA Forces Help, which found that only 11 per cent of people were currently volunteering, although three-quarters of those polled said they would like to be involved in some form of volunteering work.
So why is there a large discrepancy between the two studies?
One reason is that different surveys use different definitions of what volunteering is. For example, until the Home Office study, the most widely quoted statistics came from a 1997 survey conducted by the Institute for Volunteering Research. This found that nearly half the population was involved in some type of formal volunteering, ranging from registered charities to local sports clubs, churches and schools.
People responding to the NOP survey, on the other hand, may have associated volunteering specifically with charities and played down other forms of giving time. The NOP findings may also have been lower because respondents were asked whether they were currently volunteering, rather than whether they had volunteered in the past 12 months.
Whichever is the more accurate reflection of volunteering, the NOP finding that three-quarters of people say they would like to volunteer suggests that there is still a lot to be done in promoting opportunities. After all, according to Home Office figures, organisations benefit from 1.8 billion hours of volunteering a year. Therefore if this level were increased by 10 per cent, it would result in an additional 180 million hours a year.
"Many voluntary organisations are still not selling themselves well enough to volunteers,
says a spokesman for SSAFA Forces Help, which works with the families of people in the services. He adds that many people have a narrow view of what volunteering is and do not appreciate the diversity of opportunities on offer.
Matthew Thomson, director of development at volunteering agency Timebank, agrees: "Many people associate volunteering with fundraising and they're put off by the thought of rattling a tin."
However, he does accept that some people may exaggerate their willingness to volunteer in order to look good in front of pollsters. Nevertheless, there is growing concern about falling volunteering levels among certain groups, such as young people, and over whether the voluntary sector is keeping pace with modern ways of living.
Christopher Spence, chief executive at the National Centre for Volunteering, says that many organisations are still too rigid in their approach to volunteers, unimaginative in how they promote opportunities and inflexible in the design of volunteering programmes. "Voluntary organisations need to look at what people really want to do and pay people to do the rest, rather than the other way round,
Many of the more traditional volunteering charities, such as British Red Cross, St John Ambulance and even The Samaritans, have experienced volunteer recruitment problems, says Spence.
"Perhaps that's partly because of a rigid approach,
he says, adding that today people work longer hours, have crowded personal lives and often find it hard to volunteer regularly. "Those charities that offer more flexible opportunities, such as one-off events or not requiring the volunteer to do the same hours on the same day each week, are doing best,
Of course, to offer more flexible volunteering opportunities require more management time by charities and that means more resources. There is a widely held view that what is needed is far more volunteer managers.
"Lack of resources is definitely holding back many charities,
says Sarah Green, a spokeswoman for volunteering agency CSV.
She argues that one way to significantly increase the number of volunteers would be for the Government to further open up the public services. "Many people volunteer in schools and hospitals but it's informal and ad hoc. If the public services had targets for volunteer numbers and guidelines on how to treat them that would make a big difference,
This is a controversial area, however, with suspicions among some unions that volunteers could be used by the Government to deliver public services on the cheap.
The Government's record on promoting volunteering has also gained mixed reactions from people in the voluntary sector. Many welcome the higher profile that volunteering has received since Labour was elected in 1997, but Spence questions whether Millennium Volunteers has recruited as many people as hoped. Although he adds that quantity rather than quality is key.
In the longer term, one possible obstacle to getting a clear message to the public on volunteering is the large number of national agencies in the field, ranging from CSV to the National Centre for Volunteering and the NAVB.
This is reflected in the various national events aimed at attracting new volunteers, such as National Centre for Volunteering and NAVB's Volunteers' Week (held last week) and October's Make a Difference Day, run by CSV.
Spence, while noting that the various national organisations have slightly different roles, acknowledges that "it's a crowded market place
and that there is some overlap.
However, he believes developments such as the England Volunteering Forum, which brings together 13 national volunteering agencies, and the "strategic alliance
reached between the National Centre for Volunteering and NAVB should help ensure a more unified voice.
HOME OFFICE SURVEY FINDINGS
- 39 per cent of the population are involved in some form of formal volunteering
- 22 per cent of these are involved in raising and handling money capacities
- 21 per cent are organising or helping to raise money for an activity or event
- 14 per cent give some form of other practical help
- 13 per cent are leaders or a member of a committee
- 11 per cent give advice or counselling
- 10 per cent provide transport or driving.