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Introducing the voluntary sector
Introducing the voluntary sector

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1.1 How many people volunteer?

Given that volunteering covers a wide range of activities, it is useful to know how many people actually volunteer. It is difficult to get an accurate picture of how many people volunteer on a regular basis and there is little consistency between surveys of volunteering, even within the UK. In Scotland, 29% of adults said they had volunteered in the past 12 months, with half of those volunteering for 1–5 hours per week (Scottish Government, 2013).

In England in 2012–2013, 29% of adults had formally volunteered at least once a month in the previous year and 44% had volunteered at least once in the previous year. In Wales, it is estimated that 931,000 people were volunteering in 2013–2014 (Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA), 2014).

From survey results, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) (2015) estimate that across the UK 13.8 million people volunteer at least once a month and 21.1 million volunteer at least once a year.

Surveys are generally aimed at adults, so figures would be higher if children were included. Organisations usually have a starting age limit of 16 for volunteering independently but many children volunteer alongside their parents and many organisations actively promote family volunteering, for example the National Trust.

Activity 1 Thinking about volunteering

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes

What experience do you have of formal and/or informal volunteering – either you personally or what you know about your friends’ or relatives’ experience? If you volunteer, what are people’s reactions to this when (if) you tell them?

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Many of us will do informal volunteering, perhaps without even thinking about it. Formal volunteering often involves more of a commitment, with a regular time slot and a specified number of hours. Most importantly, it often involves completing an application form and being ‘recruited’ to a role, being inducted and trained – in a similar way to a paid job.

Organisations can offer some flexibility to their volunteers but many cannot function without them and need to devise work rotas in similar ways to those for paid staff. The main difference between a volunteer and a paid member of staff is that the organisation knows that many of their volunteers wish to work for only a day, a week or a month.

One exception to this is the role of ‘intern’. These are often full-time unpaid roles for a specified amount of time and are perceived to be useful in gaining training and more work experience, particularly for graduates. However, they have been criticised as exploitative.

People’s reactions to volunteering vary substantially: some people never volunteer, as they wish only to work for a salary and may struggle with the concept of giving their time for free. Others might say, ‘Why do you have to volunteer today? It’s not a job’. However, for most regular volunteers it is like a job, one with a strong commitment and sense of obligation and they feel they would be ‘letting people down’ if they did not do their shift. Other people might struggle with the concept of their friends or relatives volunteering in roles that used to be paid jobs, such as in some libraries.

The role of volunteering gained much more attention during the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where volunteers were very visible as helpers and participants in the opening and closing ceremonies.

This section has given a sense of what volunteering is in general. In the next section you will explore what types of role and task volunteers might take on.