Diverse young volunteers in protective gloves sorting, packing foodstuff in cardboard boxes, working together on donation project indoors
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Volunteering and donation numbers are dropping substantially

People in the UK are giving far less of their time and money to good causes than they did a few years ago, according to data from both the Charities Aid Foundation and the Office for National Statistics. Fewer donations and volunteers is bad news for charities, community organisations and other groups that rely on these resources. It is also bad news for the people such groups help, whose numbers have been increasing recently due to things such as the cost of living crisis. What can be done?

In May 2023, some of the UK’s biggest volunteer organisations tried to turn the tide by running “The Big Help Out”, an event tied to King Charles’ coronation which encouraged people to perform good deeds.

As solutions go, however, many consider The Big Help Out to be a poor one. After all, volunteer and donations numbers are almost certainly not dipping due to a lack of public awareness or encouragement. Instead, worsening economic conditions are largely to blame. Prices have been steadily climbing upwards for months, squeezing budgets. Working hours are long and getting longer: a 2019 study found that UK employees worked the most hours in the EU, and research in 2021 found that the pandemic-induced shift to work from home increased work time for a majority of Brits. Meanwhile, physical and mental health across all age brackets has declined, leaving people less able to engage in extracurricular activities.

Beyond these factors, a volunteering drive linked explicitly to the royal family was destined to turn off a lot of people; support for the monarchy has also been declining for several years. And support is lowest amongst the very group that is particularly underrepresented amongst volunteers: young people.

The demographic skew of volunteers towards older age groups is another problem for organisations that rely on them, because it compresses the range of experiences, ideas and viewpoints that are being heard and represented. It makes it harder for groups to connect to their younger members or users. There is also a risk that people who do not pick up the habit of volunteering in their younger years will be less likely to do it when they grow older, causing the volunteering crisis to steadily worsen over time.

For some people, the current issues with sourcing enough volunteers and donations will give further weight to the argument that these are unsustainable sources for our society to rely on. What if, instead, the sort of help, support and community connection that non-profit groups provide was funded by the state? What if higher taxes on the most fortunate people and businesses were used to pay for the outputs and labour that are currently being funded by those individuals who are willing or able to donate some of their time or income?

One big advantage of this way of doing things is that it would broaden access to the sector, particularly for people of marginalised identities. Under the current system, it is often the case that those who hold the sort of lived experience of an issue that could be invaluable for an organisation to draw upon (around poverty, say) are also those who are least able to afford to give up their time for free.

In the world as it currently is, however, the fact remains that many organisations are unable to pay people to carry out the amount of work they require. How can these groups increase volunteering in the short-term, especially amongst underrepresented groups such asyoung people? One option might be to ensure volunteer roles are structured in a way that still provides some kind of economic benefit, such as ensuring volunteers have ample opportunity to build skills, gain references and generally improve their employability. Building pathways where volunteers are trained and prioritised for the paid positions that are available within the charity sector could similarly make volunteering more attractive to some, as well as be a way to actively increase the representation of people who have the relevant lived experience for these paid positions but less formal work experience.

Of course, money isn't all that matters to people, and there are also broader benefits that can be reaped by volunteering and donating. It is a scientific fact that helping other people makes us happier. It also is a way to meet new people, become embedded into a local community and create the sort of changes people wish to see in the world. Playing up these advantages could help non-profit groups recruit.

So could prioritising flexibility when thinking about the volunteering roles they offer. One interesting thing the data shows is that informal volunteering (i.e. free help that is not provided via an organisation) has held up much better over the last few years than formal volunteering. This suggests there's plenty of willingness to help but perhaps less ability to commit to rigid or long-term asks. Volunteering roles that are short-term or one-offs might therefore see more take-up - and once people have their foot in the door, they might even be more inclined to stick around.

 Our explainer: Should we be paid for doing good deeds?
 Explore further: Charities Aid Foundation Report
 Get involved: Do It! volunteering database

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