Around 14.2m people in the UK volunteer at least once per month, which is roughly 22% of the population. So why do charities and voluntary organisations struggle to find the right people?  Where are all the volunteers hiding?

Supply and demand

Competition for talented, altruistic people is high, and demand continues to grow with the expansion of the voluntary sector. There are more than 160,000 voluntary organisations across the United Kingdom. Some 830,000 people working in the sector are paid employees, but many day-to-day services are delivered by unpaid labour.

It’s tempting to prioritise the recruitment and retention of paid employees over that of volunteers, but when volunteers add an estimated £12 billion+ to the UK economy (measured in terms of Gross Value Added (GVA)), it’s clear that the unpaid workforce deserves serious attention. To give you an idea of scale, they contribute an amount to the economy similar to the agricultural sector.

Volunteers, it turns out, can pick and choose about where and how to donate their time and energy. Voluntary organisations increasingly need a strategic approach and a multi-faceted attraction and retention strategy. 


Different ways to volunteer

Getting to grips with the volunteer mindset is one of the first steps to successful recruitment and retention. There’s no one type of volunteer and no set way of volunteering, but there are three broad categories. Formal volunteering means giving unpaid help through groups, clubs or organisations. Employer-supported volunteering is volunteering undertaken by employees. It includes activities such as volunteering days provided by an employer during work-time or voluntary activities that are organised through a workplace. Informal volunteering is harder to quantify as it involves individuals offering unpaid help to their neighbours or communities. 

The Community Life Survey commissioned by the Cabinet Office, states that “formal volunteering has been fluctuating since 2001, with lows in 2009-10 and 2010-11, and highs in 2005 and 2012-13”. Regular employer-supported volunteering – that is, at least once per month – remains rare and is reported by 2.7% of all respondents to the most recent Community Life survey, compared with 2.6% in 2013/14.  Less regular participation in employer-supported volunteering – that is, at least once in the last year – has also remained at a similar level: 7.4% compared with 7.6% in 2013/14


Who volunteers and why?


Data gathered in the Community Life Survey indicates that there are no significant gender differences in rates of formal volunteering between men and women (41% of men compared with 43% of women). However more women informally volunteered in the last 12 months. Broadly equal proportions reported volunteering at least once per month (28% of men and 27% of women). However, more pronounced differences were observed in terms of informal volunteering; more women than men volunteered informally in the last 12 months (56% of men and 62% of women).


2015/16 data shows that the highest rates of monthly volunteering are in 16 to 25 year olds (32%) and 65 to 74 year olds (31%).  Rates of formal volunteering among young people have risen steadily in recent years, with the 2014/15 data showing an increase of four percent from the previous year.


Who to target

Participation rates in all forms of volunteering are now highest in young people. At the same time the older generation is an area with huge potential due to an ageing population. 


Older People

The percentage of the population that is 65 years or older is growing. It increased between 1975 and 2015, from 14.1% of the population to 17.8%. It is projected to continue to grow to nearly a quarter of the population by 2045 (Office for National Statistics, 2017). Organisations seeking volunteers can no longer afford to ignore this enormous resource.

Younger People

A 2015 face-to-face survey of 2021 young people aged 10-20 in the UK revealed 42% had taken part in some form of meaningful social action. They are also keen to build experience that makes them more attractive to university admissions officers and employers.  Partnership with local schools and colleges could therefore provide a ready source of volunteers. Ideal targets include vocational courses such as health and social care. 

Employee Volunteering

Since 2013 there has been a significant uplift in those undertaking employer-sponsored charity days and volunteering work.  UK Corporate Firms donate almost £1 billion in ‘charity days’ every year.  Recent information indicates that only 17% of these are used, indicating 14 million days that don’t reach the charity sector.  Only a minority of employees (and employers) do not want to volunteer – just 19% of employees say that nothing can encourage them.


Seizing the opportunity

Huge numbers of people are volunteering, and the numbers continue to grow.  The two most significant demographics that should be explored are at different ends of the spectrum: the under-25s and the over 65s.  Employee volunteering is also an under-exploited resource.

Standing out in a crowded market is a matter of identifying your audience and persuading them to buy into what you have to offer them as volunteers.  This is rarely successful when carried out on an ad hoc basis. Attracting and retaining a valuable resource like volunteers demands a much more informed and thoughtful approach.

 By David Davies, Client Relationship Director.