John Mohan and Rose Lindsey: We must be realistic about volunteering

There is a positive story to be told about levels of volunteering in the past four decades, but our research suggests we must be cautious about what we expect in the future

John Mohan and Rose Lindsey
John Mohan and Rose Lindsey

Volunteering has been a subject of policy interventions and political contention since at least the 1979 election. Yet little work has been done towards understanding what has happened to levels of volunteering across the entirety of this period, or on providing insights into people’s attitudes to and understanding of volunteering over this timeframe. Our new book, Continuity and Change in Voluntary Action, draws together 35 years of quantitative and qualitative evidence on these topics.

Looking back at surveys since the early 1980s, we found no discernible change in levels of engagement. This might disappoint some who have hoped for significant growth, but on the whole we think this is a positive story. Despite the economic turbulence of recent decades, people are still coming forward to volunteer in great numbers, with surveys consistently reporting between 25 and 30 per cent engaged in "formal volunteering" (through organisations) at least monthly.

Our book also draws on the writings of contributors to the Mass Observation Project, a volunteer writing project that has been in place since 1981. Writers respond to sets of questions sent out to them three times a year, providing personal accounts of their activities and attitudes towards a broad range of issues relating to British society. This enabled us to look at how writers were accommodating volunteering in busy working and family lives, and provided insights into how changes in writers’ circumstances affected their engagement. What does this tell us about whether the level of volunteering might be increased or not?

These biographies reveal the strong social connections that lead people to volunteer, especially those built through the workplace or residence in a particular community. This leads us to speculate what might happen in the future. For example, many of our respondents have experienced orderly careers, spending many years in one workplace and living in the same community. Such jobs are being replaced by more flexible, casualised forms of employment. This is likely to have knock-on effects on the likelihood that they will volunteer. Likewise, a dysfunctional housing market, with greater reliance on insecure and short-term tenancies, might inhibit the formation of social connections.

If there is a belief that volunteers can take over the running of many public services while the state withdraws funding, there are also grounds for caution here. When describing their volunteering activities, writers demonstrate that they prioritise their own communities, often referring immediately to neighbourly actions through which they support people directly, rather than to roles in delivering public services or the governance of significant organisations. Given that reductions in funding are likely to place greater pressures on the social care system, and the need for informal caring, these pressures are likely to further limit people’s capacities to engage more extensively in voluntary action.

Those who write for the Mass Observation Project are all active citizens. Some have regularly contributed to the project for more than 30 years, so their views on being asked to do more are to be taken seriously. Several report a sense of exhaustion and some are looking forward to retirement as presenting an opportunity to withdraw from voluntary commitments. There are also strongly held views on the need for clear demarcation between the responsibilities of the public and voluntary sectors. Writers are sceptical about the potential "dilution" of professional public services through greater use of volunteers, and they voice concerns about undermining the dignity of paid labour through the use of volunteers to undercut the position of the lowest-paid members of society.

People are not averse to doing more, but they want a clear message as to why they should. When asked about the "big society", people are confused about its meaning, concerned that it is neither novel nor distinctive and strongly cynical about its underlying political motivations. Thus, simple exhortations to do more volunteering are unlikely to produce the desired effect. A clear explanation of the underlying framework behind policy changes is needed.

There is a huge amount to celebrate about voluntary action, but the key message of this book is that we should be realistic about what can credibly be expected from it.

Rose Lindsey is a senior research fellow at the University of Southampton and John Mohan is director of the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham. Continuity and Change in Voluntary Action is available from Policy Press

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