It’s Volunteers’ Week, but are volunteers losing heart?
By Emma McKay, Research Team Leader

At some point in her illustrious charity career, Elizabeth Andrew once said that “volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.” Her words sum up why, every year, Volunteers’ Week is seized upon by charities to thank the people who support them with their time, without payment, for the hours that they give so generously; and to reassure them that their energy – or heart – is directed in the right way.

This year’s Volunteers’ Week follows an eventful few months for the sector, in particular around the topic of sexual misconduct. This may have started with Oxfam employees in Haiti, but it overtook many more organisations and led to a tripling in the number of serious safeguarding incidents reported to the Charity Commission in February and March. Undoubtedly, the sector will be keen to reassure the public – its current and potential volunteers – that the work they do is ethical and worthwhile.

Nonetheless, this may prove to be unnecessary. When asked in 2017 about the possible effect of a decline in public trust on the sector, only 5% of charity leaders thought that a lack of volunteers would be a consequence. In their opinion, other effects were more likely, with just over a quarter (28%) expecting to be affected by reduced fundraising income and almost a third (31%) thinking there would be no effect at all.

Regardless of what the public may or may not think, charities do value the input of their volunteers. ComRes research for New Philanthropy Capital in 2017 found that the majority of charity leaders agree that volunteers are an important resource for achieving their charity’s mission (70%) with a minority (16%) saying otherwise. This is especially important for leaders of small or medium sized charities, 85% of whom say volunteers are important for their mission; also for those who lead local charities (74%). For anyone who has ever worked or volunteered for smaller charities, who achieve great things for their beneficiaries with the minimum of funding for paid staff, this will come as no surprise. Larger charity leaders, with a greater recourse to paid staff, are less likely to say volunteers are important, although almost two thirds (63%) still say they are important for their mission.

How then, can charities continue to recruit their vital stores of volunteers? There is certainly potential for them to do more. ComRes polling for the Charities Aid Foundation found that while more than half of Britons say that they have volunteered at some point in their life, only one in seven Britons (14%) say they currently volunteer. Fortunately, with a fifth of the British public (19%) interested in volunteering in future, there is a substantial group to harness. When prompted to consider volunteering for specific causes, they may be even more interested: research for Hospice UK has found that over a third of the UK public (37%) would be willing to volunteer for a hospice.

It’s too soon to say what the effect will be of the recent public focus on the charity sector’s shortcomings. But for now, as Volunteers’ Week closes and so many charities have taken to social media to publicise the great things they are achieving with their volunteers, sentiment towards volunteering appears to be healthy.