An increase in volunteering is good news, says Mike Locke, but we mustn’t rest on the Olympic laurels
The number of people volunteering in England has increased remarkably. The new Community Life Survey shows 30 per cent volunteered at least once a month in 2012, compared to 25 per cent in 2010-11. As well as this ‘formal’ volunteering (ie, with a group, club or organisation), 35 per cent were involved in ‘informal’ volunteering (ie, as an individual) at least once a month, compared to 29 per cent the previous year.
These figures appear to have turned the corner from the marginal decreases over the past three years. They match the peak year of 2005. It’s good news!
It is good news too that we actually have the Community Life Survey. This is the first report from the survey commissioned by the Cabinet Office to replace and refine the Citizenship Survey, which the communities department closed down as an economy measure, to much disbelief and protest from the voluntary sector and its research community.
How do we account for the increase in volunteering? First, we need to be cautious: these are just headline findings, and we need more than one survey before we declare a trend. But, it is noticeable that most measures in this survey, which covers a range of measures of participation in national life, have not registered a jump like that in volunteering. It doesn’t look like the consequence of the change of survey; something appears to have happened.
I assume the increase is due to a large extent to the effect of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and the mind-blowing pictures of all those volunteers not only doing wonderful work but having a wonderful time. People – and some incidental sources confirm this – were inspired to look for other volunteering opportunities.
Now, we need to build on the good news, and if we credit the effect of London 2012, we should learn its lessons. LOCOG’s leadership was absolutely committed to making volunteers central to the Games. Its management brought high level and excellently planned communications and organisation to recruiting, training, running and rewarding the volunteers. And, as yet uncounted, millions of pounds in money, kit and corporate expertise was invested in the volunteers. The number of volunteers may look like a bonus in our national life, but this good news hasn’t come for free.
We mustn’t get carried away. News from across the volunteering system points to widespread problems of recruiting volunteers, not because people don’t want to give their time, but because charities, community groups and public services have less capacity to take on volunteers as their funding and services are cut. Volunteering organisations require investment to enhance the quality and quantity of the volunteering opportunities they offer, and to optimise their response to would-be volunteers.