Rob Jackson: Time to change the way we look at volunteer management

With the amount of time given to volunteering falling, especially in age groups we usually rely on, we need to understand more about people's motivation, writes our columnist

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Last month the Office for National Statistics released data that shows changes in the amount of time people volunteer for good causes.

The findings seem innocuous. The amount of time given has fallen, from a mean average of 14.5 minutes per volunteer per day in 2000, to 13.7 minutes in 2015. That equates to a fall from 3.67 to 3.47 days a year, or of 4.8 hours per volunteer per year.

Yet the ONS highlighted some significant changes by demographic (italicised text denotes my comments):

  • Among those aged from 16 to 24, the time given to volunteering increased from 2.28 to 4.31 days a year. Great news.

  • Among those aged 25 to 34, the time given to volunteering fell from 3.8 to 1.5 days a year. That's a huge drop!

  • Among those aged 65-plus, the time given to volunteering fell from 4.82 to 3.3 days a year. That's a worrying decline in a cohort from which many organisations seek to recruit volunteers.

Some commentators have suggested the decline in hours volunteered due to people not having time to give. Yet research conducted by the consultancy nfpSynergy for its New Alchemy report suggested that 40 per cent of people volunteer because they do have time. Quite a contradiction.

Perhaps the actual, or perceived, lack of time isn't the real reason people avoid volunteering, but just the best excuse. It's easier and more polite to say "sorry, I just don't have the time" than "volunteer? With your organisation? No thanks!"

Just listen to how you respond to a street fundraiser the next time they ask you to stop and talk to them. Like me, I suspect your excuse is that you don't have time, rather than an actual reason, such as not empathising with their cause.

Another opinion came from Nick Ockenden of the Institute for Volunteering Research. In an interview with the i newspaper, Nick said that the falling levels of volunteering time might be a reflection of how organisations are offering more flexibility in their volunteering opportunities, allowing people to "dip in and out". As a result, it is possible for overall rates of participation in volunteering to be high, even if people give less time.

Whatever the reasons, the ONS data makes clear that volunteering is changing. The New Zealand-based sports trust Sport Wellington summarised it clearly in a recent article, saying: "Increasingly, people wait to be approached for volunteering roles. This reluctance to put their hands up is as a result of time poverty, worries about over-committing or a perception that volunteering is a thankless task. It is up to all organisations to think differently about recruitment, learn more about what motivates people to volunteer and how they want to be thanked, and how we can structure roles to meet their needs."

In short, investment in effective volunteer engagement is needed now if we truly want to harness the potential of volunteers in society. It’s time to change.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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