Power to the people

Girl power

26 January 2011

Volunteering is big business in the UK. Surveys show that in 2008-2009 no less than 26 per cent of people in England participated in some kind of formal volunteering programme at least once a month, while the figure for Scotland was slightly higher, at 28 per cent. Include ‘informal’, unofficial volunteering as well, and the numbers increase substantially: an additional 35 per cent of people in England were informal volunteers, according to the 2008-2009 Citizenship Survey.

"Research evidence on volunteering in Britain shows that these numbers have remained relatively stable for more than ten years," says Professor Peter Alcock, Director of the Third Sector Research Centre, which is part-funded by the ESRC.

But while these high levels of participation readily demonstrate that many Britons are willing to engage in voluntary and community-building activities, they might also mean that the potential for recruiting additional volunteers is limited. "The already high level of activity raises some questions as to whether it is actually realistic to expect even more people to come forward in a new drive for engagement," argues Professor Alcock. Yet the extra people are out there, insists Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, Executive Director of volunteering charity Community Service Volunteers (CSV).

"Survey data show that 11 million more people would be prepared to do voluntary work if they were asked. These findings have remained relatively constant over several surveys," she points out. "The growth in the percentage of older people also offers huge potential - we now have the wealthiest generation of retired people our society has ever known."

CSV and other volunteering charities have recently experienced a dramatic increase in the number of enquiries they have been receiving about volunteering opportunities. The reasons for this surge are thought to be at least three-fold: the rise in unemployment, the perceived need to acquire new skills, or simply the desire to fill spare time productively. In a survey of former CSV volunteers nine out of ten of respondents stated that they believed that "volunteering increases job prospects", with 84 per cent saying the experience "increased employability".

But the main motivation for volunteering is far from selfish. According to the 2008-09 Citizenship Survey, the most popular reason people gave was simply "wanting to improve things or help people" - mentioned by 62 per cent of regular formal volunteers. And the most commonly cited benefit (by 65 per cent) was "getting satisfaction from seeing the results". It seems like there could be potential for a citizen drive in society after all.

The main problem for a ‘Big Society’ initiative, however, could be that it comes to be seen as a top-down government policy. People might like to volunteer for their community, but they might be rather less likely to do so for the government.

"Small community organisations play a major role in community activities, but many of them are formed out of opposition to central government policies," says Professor Alcock. "The government might want to encourage community organisations, but it can’t necessarily expect a positive response." Indeed, opposition and protest are common drivers for community action - the Countryside Alliance and anti-fox hunt ban groups being obvious examples.

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